Criterion Sunday 495: “The Golden Age of Television”

Back in the 1950s, a lot of filmmakers and actors made their breaks in filmed plays, initially an hour in length but later longer, both in the United States and in the UK too. Dramas were staged regularly, after a few weeks’ rehearsal, and shown live on television, mainly because pre-taping didn’t exist. However, it does seem as if they were filmed for posterity and while they may not be perfectly preserved, at least they do exist, unlike a lot of early television, which has been wiped forever. The Criterion’s set seems to follow the selections made for a repeat in 1981, and the introductions made at that time for each of the films are presented in this collection as well.


The first film in the collection, 1953’s Marty, is also the one which went on to greatest acclaim later, remade two years later as a feature which swept most of the major Academy Awards for that year (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay). Looking back at the original TV production at almost 70 years’ distance, it feels as if this is a cute twist on the idea that women are constantly pestered for marriage, but flipping it on its head: here it is the lumpen titular character (Rod Steiger), nearing the age of 40, who is constantly pestered as to when he’s getting married. He has a large Catholic family, and all of them seem to have been paired off, but the problem is: he’s perceived as ugly. Perhaps that’s just the fishbowl lenses of these clunky old TV cameras (they add more than 10 pounds), but at least he’s not a “dog”, as seems to be the insult for unattractive women (the ones we see don’t seem to have weight issues like Marty). It’s hard to find oneself in these old dramas, of course; Marty, for all his unluckiness in love, is also a little bit too persistent and comes across at times as rather an unlikeable character, prone to mumbling then shouting, liable to press for a kiss a little too eagerly. Still, we’re encouraged to be on his side, and I suppose there is an empathy developed for his character. The primitive technology is used nicely by the director for some dramatic camera movements, but mostly this sticks to the play-on-screen format with a tight structure (the complaints of Marty are matched nicely with the moaning of the mothers about their sons abandoning them, though the expected roles for women remain very much of the period) and a small number of settings for the action.

It’s easy to forget that these 1950s TV plays were filmed live. Sometimes that can be obvious for various reasons, but in a film like Patterns (1955) it’s almost hard to tell, so fluid and elegant is the camerawork. It’s obvious the cameras were clunky and the picture is weirdly distorted, but there’s a freewheeling sense to this boardroom drama, as various egos are torn and frayed and words are exchanged back and forth. It gives a particularly visceral sense of the American office which eschews interpersonal drama for a battle of the wills between the company head and his vice-presidents. That said, there’s a lovely speech from our lead character’s wife that sets out the moral compass of the film by being realistic and hard-nosed rather than preachy and virtuous, a tone that you sometimes forget the 1950s was capable of, but is present in the darkness that underlies plenty of that decade’s cinematic output.

More than the first two productions, No Time for Sergeants (1955) seems particularly stagey. The other films managed to find ways to adapt their teleplays into something visual, even on the primitive recording equipment available, but this sticks with non-naturalistic effects like stage lighting and very simple sets. In a way that makes sense because it’s a comedy, but it harks towards a future of TV sitcoms rather than prestige films, and its star Andy Griffith went on to dominate that medium after all. It’s likeable enough, a wartime-set comedy about a slightly foolish Southern man who signs up and bumbles his way through various scenarios, seemingly good natured in his eagerness to please but managing to get his sergeant into hot water along the way — Griffith plays this straight rather than knowing, but he’s certainly less of an idiot than he seems from his accent, and this production exploits that tension nicely.

A Wind from the South (1955) is set in Ireland, which leads to a lot of fairly painful (but certainly could be worse) stabs at an accent. Julie Harris does a good job in the central role, a repressed woman whose brother is the controlling force in her life, who’s been brought up in the traditional ways but starts to feel something for a man who comes through town. There’s some nice work here but it still feels a bit unfocused at times, and perhaps I just react a little negatively towards all those on-screen Irish stereotypes.

After having watched a few of these films, I think it’s the simplest ones that work best, because after all there’s not a lot of budget (or technical ability) to do much more than a few small rooms. Bang the Drum Slowly (1956) draws attention to its staging by having our hero, a baseball player whose nickname is “Author” due to his constant writing (which within the play itself doesn’t seem particularly accomplished), introduce us to his story and break the fourth wall throughout by guiding us the audience through the events. It’s a nice touch but it allows us to forget the very basic sets and focus on the interrelationships between “Author” (a young Paul Newman, and already a pretty magnetic screen presence) and his roommate (Albert Salmi), who’s had a terminal cancer diagnosis and whom he is trying to protect within the team. You get a good sense of the workplace management situation (or lack thereof), the behind the scenes bullying and jockeying for position, it’s all very nicely done and — as mentioned already — well-acted from its cast packed with plenty of talents.

Throughout this collection, Rod Serling (as writer) continually proves his worth. After Patterns the previous year dealt with ad men, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) is a boxing drama, which has always been a sport that translates particularly well to the screen. We don’t even see any of the matches themselves, as the focus remains on the difficult decisions that both Jack Palance’s boxer and Keenan Wynn’s coach need to make to survive, the latter by entering into shady deals with dodgy guys that push him towards bad decisions, and the former who’s belatedly coming to the realisation that he needs to remake himself and find some new life because he’s reached the end of the line in the ring. It’s all passionately acted, not least by Palance and Wynn, though it’s also good to see Keenan’s dad Ed mixing it up with some serious dramatic work as well. There are some big scenes and big emotions, but this is the soul of this kind of small scale TV drama and it works really well.

Serling had some of the snappiest scripts of all the films featured and another of his, The Comedian (1957), is also that: a high-tone melodrama about a comedian at the top of his game (Mickey Rooney) who behind the scenes is a bullying tyrant of a man, who treats his brother (Mel Tormé) like dirt and has frequent run-ins with his head writer (Edmond O’Brien, continuing to channel all those noirs he was in over the previous decade). Somehow, despite these characters being in the world of entertainment, they all still feel like heavies, mainly because they are all deeply flawed people scurrying around like rats trapped in a cage trying to get out. And I think it could really land except that maybe because it’s shot live for television, there’s something just a little hammy about it. Too often it feels like Rooney, O’Brien, all of them have just been asked to be a little bit extra, go a little bit further, and so there are spittle-flecked scenes of shouting, characters screaming in one another’s faces, where perhaps a little bit of subtlety might have been rewarding? I don’t know, but it feels like a very aggressive film, I guess because it’s about such difficult people, and that is, after all, the world they all operate in. Given the live filming, it’s incredible that some of the scenes came off, montage sequences, a freewheeling jaunt through a TV studio bouncing from character to character that could have come straight from an Altman film. There’s a lot here that’s genuinely quite great, but then again director John Frankenheimer was even by this point a seasoned veteran of live television.

Indeed, there’s no doubt Frankenheimer was a slick director at the format. And while by 1958 there was a small amount of pre-taping that was possible apparently, for a largely live production this all cuts together superbly well. The problem I have in the case of Days of Wine and Roses (1958) is the broadness of the acting. It’s about alcoholism and the toll it takes on people, but this is straight up a soap opera level of melodrama, with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie alternately bawling and spluttering drunkenly at each other. It has a certain intensity to it, but it’s all too easy to laugh — something I attribute more to changing expectations of subtle dramatic work over the ages rather than anything inherent to their choices. It’s all very nicely done, but like the characters it’s all a bit messy.

  • Each of the seven films has an introduction taken from a 1981 series of broadcasts that presented these films again to television audiences for the first time since their original broadcast. In it, a famous host introduces a series of interviews with cast and crew, who talk about the filming and the time and contextualise the importance of these works for viewers of the early-80s, for whom some of the actors first seen on TV in these shows were now household names.
  • There is an additional 15-20 or so minutes of footage of John Frankenheimer being interviewed in 1981 talking about his two productions, and he’s a good interview subject, eloquent about his work and with a pretty good memory given how many films he made.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
The Philco Television Playhouse: Marty (1953)
Director Delbert Mann; Writer Paddy Chayefsky; Cinematographer Al McClellan; Starring Rod Steiger, Nancy Marchand; Length 52 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 4 January 2022.

Kraft Television Theatre: Patterns (1955)
Director Fielder Cook; Writer Rod Serling; Starring Richard Kiley, Ed Begley, Everett Sloane, June Dayton; Length 53 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 5 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: No Time for Sergeants (1955)
Director Alex Segal; Writer Ira Levin (based on the novel by Mac Hyman); Starring Andy Griffith, Harry Clark; Length 50 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 6 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: A Wind from the South (1955)
Director Daniel Petrie; Writer James Costigan; Starring Julie Harris, Donald Woods; Length 51 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: Bang the Drum Slowly (1956)
Director Daniel Petrie; Writer Arnold Schulman (based on the novel by Mark Harris); Starring Paul Newman, Albert Salmi; Length 52 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 8 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956)
Director Ralph Nelson; Writer Rod Serling; Starring Keenan Wynn, Jack Palance, Kim Hunter, Ed Wynn; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 9 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: The Comedian (1957)
Director John Frankenheimer; Writer Rod Serling (based on a story by Ernest Lehman); Starring Mickey Rooney, Edmond O’Brien, Kim Hunter, Mel Tormé; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 9 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: Days of Wine and Roses (1958)
Director John Frankenheimer; Writer JP Miller; Starring Cliff Robertson, Piper Laurie; Length 80 minutes.
Seen home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 10 January 2022.

Naomi Osaka (2021)

I’m rounding up my favourite films of the year before I get to a list, and the first thing to acknowledge is that this isn’t actually a film. It’s presented as a three-part television special on Netflix. But the chapters are wildly different in length and the total running time puts it firmly in feature film territory. It’s a choice to present it this way, of course, but I watched it all in one sitting and it works perfectly fine that way.


This is an odd way to present what is essentially a feature-length documentary, as three sort-of-half hour episodes in a ‘limited series’. I wonder if that’s just to give more space between them, because although they are all part of a continuous narrative arc, there’s a feeling of chapters which I suppose plays into the way that Naomi Osaka’s (at this point, still fairly short) professional life has panned out, and also the interruption that the pandemic has had not just on sport but on society. Osaka is a reflective interview subject (though her primary interview for the film is presented as a voiceover), perhaps not profoundly deep but why should one expect that from an athlete of her age, but still more reflective than many who are thrust into the limelight in their teens and early twenties. And of course in the hands of Garrett Bradley, who made my favourite film of last year (Time) — at least I think it was last year (time, eh) — there’s an assured sense of how the film constructs its subject, and plenty of empathy. It made me fascinated by her, by her life and career, of what she’s achieved, of what she struggles with and and by the possibility yet to come.

Naomi Osaka (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Garrett Bradley; Cinematographer Jon Nelson; Length 111 minutes (in three episodes).
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 20 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 411: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

Not really sure where to start with this one, but of course it must be understood that it’s a TV series, not a movie; it’s not designed to be watched as a single unit, and indeed I watched it in five sittings over the past week and a half. That said, it feels like a full expression of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s vision, with the carnivalesque, the nasty and bitter, the rank misogyny of desperate men, and the endless forbearance of easily discarded women.

Its setting is late-20s Berlin, and though the rise of the Nazi Party is somewhere in the background and is rarely far from the viewer’s mind (not least because the entire enterprise is sort of a state of the diseased nation piece in allegorical miniature), it’s rarely explicitly mentioned in the film. The set design drips with brown sepia tones, mostly being set in a series of slummy apartments and a bar where recently-released criminal Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) consorts with odious types like Gottfried John’s Reinhold and Frank Buchrieser’s Meck. For the first half he avers the criminal life, trying on a series of ‘respectable’ professions like selling shoelaces or hawking newspapers (albeit the Völkischer Beobachtung, the Nazi paper), until eventually he is ground down enough by fate to find himself pulled back into the work of the criminals he’s surrounded by — that much is hardly a surprise. He remains, however absurdly it may seem, attractive to women and a number of them (the actors all familiar from Fassbinder’s other films) move through his life, as we learn of the reason he was in prison in the first place, and the repeated insistence on his crime (the murder of an earlier girlfriend), makes it clear that he is not only no saint, but also that part of this world is a toxic misogyny that is normalised as part of the operation of society. That doesn’t exactly make it easy to watch, though, however much it may be clear this is Fassbinder’s point (and presumably of Döblin, the original author).

Visually, though, it’s quite something. Aside from the set design, there are many bravura pieces of filmmaking, long takes choreographing actors entering and exiting the frame almost balletically, or shots through cages and tracking around subterranean settings. It sweeps you up in this bitter, nasty world very easily and pulls you through what amounts to almost 15 hours of a descent into madness, made literal in the final epilogue episode, as all the incipient drama in Franz’s life become a whirling mess of hallucinatory drama soundtracked by fragments of music from across the canon (from Leonard Cohen and Kraftwerk to snatches of opera). It’s certainly an achievement of sorts, however little it feels like something I’d want to revisit in a hurry, and it’s worth the time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder (based on the novel by Alfred Döblin); Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Franz Buchrieser, Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla, Brigitte Mira; Length 902 minutes (in 14 episodes).

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 4 March [episodes 1-2], Friday 5 March [episodes 3-6] and Thursday 11 March [episodes 7-9], and at a friend’s home (YouTube streaming), Friday 12 March [episodes 10-12] and Sunday 14 March 2021 [episodes 13-14].

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

Another film which comes on the heels of the same director’s excellent work on The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? and plunges her back into another gently middlebrow and lightly period piece about the anxieties of artists. I found it likeable, and it’s well worth checking out.


There’s something almost aggressively middlebrow about this film, indeed about a number of the season’s films, and perhaps I only say that because it fits into a certain kind of Oscar-ready category, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing here. It’s about a television personality (one I was not at all familiar with, as my upbringing did not feature Mr Rogers), and the film at times has a deeply televisual feel in the way it’s constructed — I don’t know that I can explain it, just that something about the way the shots were constructed, the musical cues, the scene transitions (both the editing and the interstitial model toy sets) felt almost uncannily like this film was intended to be a Very Special extended episode of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood (though as mentioned above, I obviously don’t know the original show except as it’s shown within this film). But rather than the TV personality, the film’s story focuses instead on Matthew Rhys’s journalist, an angry resentful man who’s trying to find an angle on Tom Hank’s Fred Rogers; the film and Hanks’s performance almost seem to play along, and he has these ways of staring intensely that suggest some deep buried secret is going to come out — certainly the legacy of 70s light entertainers on British TV led me to worry where this might lead. But no, in fact, Rogers seems like a genuinely decent guy, who cares deeply about the way that children are spoken to, and I think that all comes across really effectively in the film. It would also make an interesting double-bill with A Hidden Life (which was out in UK cinemas the week beforehand, hence was on my mind), because I think both are films deeply imbued with a very Christian faith, though in rather more subtle ways here, expressed primarily by silence (there’s one particularly striking scene in a diner) and by a sense of ritual.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood film posterCREDITS
Director Marielle Heller; Writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (based on the article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod); Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 31 January 2020.

Two Made-for-TV Biopics about African-American Women: Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and The Rosa Parks Story (2002)

Moving on with my films-seen-on-YouTube theme, it can be a great resource for television movies, given many of them never received “proper” releases. Two that I saw in close succession were fair-to-middling biopics about prominent Black women of the mid-20th century, albeit covering quite different stories in some ways. It may be telling that while one was itself directed by an African-American woman (Julie Dash! a great director at that), the other was directed by a white woman; however, the production history and writing credits suggest it’s not quite so straightforward. In any case, the film about Dandridge certainly dwells more on the more negative aspects of her life, although it’s covering a whole career rather than just a single defining time in civil rights history. It’s probably worth looking into the comparison between the two more closely, except that neither is a particularly memorable film in the end, though both are successful in their own ways.

Continue reading “Two Made-for-TV Biopics about African-American Women: Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and The Rosa Parks Story (2002)”

Late Night (2018)

When discussing Asian-American experiences, there’s a lot about people from Chinese or Japanese backgrounds, but Indian-Americans have also been fairly prominent (see also my review of Meet the Patels a few years ago). This prominence has come not least via high-profile television comedians like Aziz Ansari or Mindy Kaling, the writer and star of TV’s The Mindy Project and most recently this film, also directed by a Canadian of Indian heritage, Nisha Ganatra. Ostensibly the film focuses on Emma Thompson’s star, but really it’s about women like Kaling getting a foot in the door of an industry dominated by white people, usually men.


A broadly likeable film which doesn’t always feel believable. Quite aside from having a woman as a long-running late night talk show host (and Emma Thompson exudes an odd energy, unlike the guys and even the few women currently doing it), mostly it’s because the film repeatedly leans on the idea that the show is broadcast live. I also didn’t believe anyone in the film really knew anything about social media. However, the script delivers quite a few laughs, even when it’s being more broadly sentimental, and it can be quite sharp about some of the politics around diversity in the media (though I’d have liked to see the dream diverse team actually working together at the end, rather than in a montage). What I loved most of all were Emma Thompson’s hair and clothes as late night talkshow host Katherine Newbury (she is a style icon in this film), and her withering backstage grumpiness. It does make a great case, quite in passing, given how easily Katherine fires people, that media workers desperately need unionisation, though.

Late Night film posterCREDITS
Director Nisha Ganatra; Writer Mindy Kaling; Cinematographer Matthew Clark; Starring Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Tuesday 18 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 229: Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage, 1973)

A quintessential Bergman-esque chamber drama of a couple dealing with their slow break-up and rapprochement over a period of about a decade, told in six chapters (six hour-long episodes in the TV version, but I watched the film version at half that length). There is barely anyone else on screen for the running time, and that’s really not much of an issue, because this is about these two people and the particular way they seem so happy together but, actually, aren’t. The acting is excellent, but I’m not sure I can summon enthusiasm for Bergman’s dramatics at this point in my life. However, I certainly wouldn’t wish to discount it: I was all ready to be very cynical early on, but I concede that the drama did eventually reel me in somewhat (even if I don’t accept this is necessarily how all marriages are).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson; Length 167 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 October 2018.

Descendants (2015)

I don’t intend to make a strong case for High School Musical auteur Kenny Ortega’s latest film, but it is brightly coloured and likeable in a fairly anodyne way, as befits a made-for-TV Disney Channel movie. The premise is that Disney’s famous villains, having been sent away to live on the Isle of the Lost, far from the good guys, have grown up and a number of them now have children who are to be reintegrated into the mainstream world of Auradon, where their parents hope they will continue to spread their legacy of evil-doing. As ever, the hierarchical society is premised on benign royalty (Beauty and the Beast in this case) ruling justly over a fluffily-updated mediaevalesque world populated by bland white prep kids. It’s up the bad guys to inject some colour (not to mention people of colour, for that matter) and they are all so clearly far more interesting than the ‘heroes’ that this amounts to its own form of critique. Certainly brief book-end appearances by musical veterans Kristin Chenoweth (as Maleficent) and Kathy Najimy (as the Evil Queen) lend a bit of Broadway pizazz to the older generation (which also includes a Black Cruella de Vil and an Iranian-American Jafar), though generally the film could do with more music and dance numbers — I understand these were only added at the late arrival of Ortega to the project, so at least there are some I suppose. The kids are all pleasant to watch, with Maleficent’s daughter Mal (Dove Cameron) being the purple-haired highlight. There’s not a whole lot more to say, and for what it sets out to achieve it feels like it’s generally a success.

Descendants film posterCREDITS
Director Kenny Ortega; Writers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott; Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn; Starring Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson, Kristin Chenoweth, Kathy Najimy; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 27 January 2016.

Nightcrawler (2014)

This film, which appears to be largely a family affair (director, producer and editor all hail from the Gilroy family, the first of whom is married to the female lead), is another flourish of retro respect towards the scuzzy lo-fi VHS aesthetics of the 80s, a very literal ‘video nasty’ in many ways, which at certain levels reminds me of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). It’s a character study of Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal, lean, slick of hair and with a stooped shuffle), a low-life criminal and sociopathic grifter just looking for a career, who stumbles into filming real-life crime footage for breaking news items on cable news. In finding his niche, Lou is at some level just exploiting the already dubious ethics of TV news journalism, though in his own work he pushes at these pretty hard, and it doesn’t take long before he’s breaking police lines and moving bodies for a better shot composition. And yet it’s also a subtly twisted satire on management techniques, as Lou takes on the naïve and desperate Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant, lecturing him on being a good employee and deploying all his online business learning in negotiations first with Rick and then with the TV station and its producer Nina (Rene Russo). There are plenty of laughs in fact, though a lot of them are of the excruciatingly uncomfortable variety, as we recognise the intensity of Lou’s delusional beliefs being played out, an unfettered id wreaking havoc with real-life consequences. All this is shot in an immersively lo-fi digital video format (notably by Robert Elswit, a frequent collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson, and who has in the past inveighed against digital), which gives it all an extra level of discomfiting presence. Ultimately, how the viewer responds is likely to be related to their tolerance for these techniques, not a million miles from the morality plays of Michael Haneke if (thankfully) lacking some of the more acute skewering of audience complicity. It’s certainly a strong directorial effort for Gilroy, and a fine performance for Gyllenhaal.

Nightcrawler film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Dan Gilroy; Cinematographer Robert Elswit; Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 5 November 2014.

Psy-Warriors (1981)

This screening was presented as part of a series dedicated to the visual spaces of television, alongside a shorter work called “The Saliva Milkshake” (reviewed below). The image is a screen capture of the film’s title card. Both were originally shown on the BBC, with the feature originally aired on 12 May 1981 as part of the “Play for Today” series, and the shorter work on 6 January 1975 in the “Centre Play” series.


Psy-Warriors (1981)

I feel as though I preface a lot of my reviews by claiming I’m no expert on what I’m about to write about, but I must at least be honest. This is going to occur fairly frequently when one dips into areas of filmmaking that are strange or unusual or otherwise outside the mainstream, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. In this case, the format of the standalone television drama (whether a half-hour segment or a feature-length presentation) is one that has been particularly ill-served by advances in distribution over the last few decades. There are still huge numbers of TV shows languishing in archives (or entirely wiped from them) that get very little airing nowadays. They may have garnered larger viewerships than many cinema-distributed films at the time, but for only one or two airings many decades ago. It’s this context in which I come to this film I’m reviewing now, a fascinating document of a past era (albeit tackling themes still very much relevant now), which I saw in a one-off archival screening at the British Film Institute.

In Britain, many of our most well-regarded directors came from a background in TV drama, and specifically the television play, a rather more cerebral and stagy sub-genre of the format which flourished from the late-1950s through to the 1980s, and which reserved their most prominent credits for the writer (whose name would often be seen on the title card or immediately following it, like David Leland’s here) rather than the director. Nevertheless, many of these works showed a strong directorial hand, and trying to see many of those early films of, say, Ken Loach or Stephen Frears or Mike Leigh can be particularly difficult. Perhaps my favourite British director — and one who stayed true to the TV play format, making relatively few films which gained cinematic distribution — is Alan Clarke. Even now, there are extensive swathes of his TV output which are very difficult to see in any form, and Psy-Warriors is one such work. It deals with military psychological operations, or brainwashing and psychological torture to put it rather more crudely. One can trace a very direct line from what we see on screen here to what continues to be done as a matter of course in such environments as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

There are certain thematic ideas which run throughout many of the films which Clarke chose to direct. Generally, his films would deal with marginalised communities (the poor and the working classes, soldiers and criminals), and the way in which their lives are shaped by the State and its forces of oppression, often expressed via violence. Psy-Warriors is no different, though the twist is that the three jailed captives — whom we at first assume are terrorists — turn out to be volunteers from within the ranks of the military, looking to advance their careers as well as patriotically help out their government with perfecting its methods of interrogation and deprogramming. Despite this, the way they are treated removes their humanity and pushes them to the edge of their tolerance. The methods are presented unflinchingly, with the male suspects (John Duttine’s Stone and Derrick O’Connor’s Richards) seen stripped naked, with bags placed over their heads, and strung up in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time. They are shown detained in cages (the third prisoner is a woman, Rosalind Ayres’s Turner), sleeping under bright lights or with grating white noise constantly playing, woken up by random intrusions from unremittingly brutal guards (the most prominent here played by the stalwart Warren Clarke), and fed a poor diet and even then only habitually. All these, of course, being techniques increasingly familiar to outraged readers of journalistic accounts of human rights abuses in modern detention facilities, and which must have been even more confrontational to television viewers of over 30 years ago.

The film’s style is striking, even if like many other films in this genre, it is necessarily curtailed by its stage-bound origins and limited budget. One expects in the television play to see a frontal staging on black cube sets resembling a theatre space, as well as long stretches of dialogue in place of action, and this is all here. However, Clarke and his collaborators are resourceful in using the bars of the cages as a recurring visual motif, filming many scenes through them, which have the effect of sometimes concealing the characters’ eyes or mouths and further impairing any easy identification. (It was in many respects unsurprising that Clarke went on to direct a Bertolt Brecht adaptation with Baal the following year, and his films throughout the 1980s increasingly become stripped down, notably Contact and Christine.) The camera also moves around the space, avoiding a slavish adherence to a fixed frontal view that would be all too easy given the film’s basis in a stage play, though the stage-bound form is appropriate to a story about people set apart from society and experimented upon.

If ultimately this isn’t either director Clarke’s or writer Leland’s strongest work, it’s still fascinating in its play on ideas that haven’t much diminished in importance in the intervening time. The acting, especially from the authority figures (Clarke and Colin Blakely’s psychologist), is imposing and the staging is striking. At times the expository talkiness of the dialogue can overwhelm the dramatic movement, but the line between authorities and terrorists is blurred, and the state’s culpability is questioned, in ways that remain somewhat unsettling even today.

Psy-WarriorsCREDITS
Director Alan Clarke; Writer David Leland; Cinematographer Ken Westbury [as film cameraman]; Starring Rosalind Ayres, John Duttine, Derrick O’Connor, Warren Clarke, Colin Blakely; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 24 February 2014.

Continue reading “Psy-Warriors (1981)”