Forgotten Old Movies

I’ve found a television channel that seems to show old black and white movies that have slipped through the historical net and ended up forgotten. In some cases, it’s quite justified but I’ve seen a couple of films lately that are absolutely remarkable, with well-known actors and good scripts. I’m baffled why they’ve ended up on some obscure satellite channel rather than being on mainstream TV, even if it on a weekday afternoon. I know I’d rather watch an old film than yet another run in with Jeremy Kyle.

The first film I caught was Suddenly!, a 1954 film noir starring Frank Sinatra as a gangster hired to assassinate the president (given the date, I’m assuming it’s Eisenhower). The majority of the action takes place in two rooms – and would probably be quite easy to adapt as a stage play – but the script is excellent. Sinatra and his henchmen have commandeered a house to set up the gun in readiness for the arrival of the President at a sleepy California town, as the house has a perfect view. It soon becomes clear that Sinatra’s character is a psychopath who kills for the fun of it, and the actual target is irrelevant to him. The script is taut, the dialogue is sharp and the acting is top notch. Given that Sinatra was nominated for an Oscar for this movie, it’s pretty criminal that (1) I’ve never heard of it before and (2) it’s only been shown on TV on this back of beyond channel.

The other film I’ve come across is also a film noir, a 1947 psychological thriller starring Edward G Robinson called The Red House. It’s not a gangster movie, but has some wonderfully gothic elements surrounding a derelict house in woods owned by a handicapped farmer. If you’re familiar with the genre, you could probably work some of the plot out, but given its age it’s actually really exciting. It’s a good story with an excellent cast who do extremely well with the relatively poor script. Again, this is a great afternoon film that seems to have been buried under the blockbusters, and it’s a great shame.

I’m hoping that I catch up with some other cracking old movies, because they really are worth watching if you like sparkling scripts, well-dressed actors and plots that don’t rely on special effects.

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A Blind Spot for Feathers

I read somewhere that the US Government is trying to overturn the Migratory Birds Treaty Act, which would mean that corporations would no longer be penalised for harming wildlife. An exhibition to raise funds to mount a legal challenge opened in New York, and illustrates very clearly why the Act was passed in the first place. Many birds were pushed to the brink of extinction – and beyond – for their ornamental feathers, which were sought after by fashion houses and milliners. Steve Backshall made the same point when he wrote about the birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea; their numbers still haven’t recovered.

I do wonder if people have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to feathers and their origins. I find feathers almost everywhere – in craft sets (my daughter loves them), in bedding, in winter coats and jackets, in jewellery, in costume (feather boas are the most obvious, but shoes as well) – frequently dyed garish colours or marketed as “down”. Most eider, duck or goose down comes from the feathers of birds slaughtered for meat, which I suppose is better than being wasteful, but it’s hardly cruelty free. Craft feathers (for example) I know very little about the origins of, but I doubt very much they are from the average pigeon. Marabou feathers – often found in boas or on shoes or slippers – are from a species of stork that is rapidly becoming endangered.

I have a substantial collection of found feathers – mainly from pigeons, but with the odd magpie and crow for a bit of variety – but I’m reluctant to wear them in any way in case I’m seen as promoting this appalling practice. It’s a real dilemma, because I really like my feathers and I’ve tried very hard not to hurt any birds in the process (although I can’t talk for next door’s cat). For now, my feathers are staying in the feather pot until I can decide what to do with them.

Du Maurier – The Birds’ Other Stories 2

THE LITTLE PHOTOGRAPHER

One of the ladies with whom I work is obsessed with class. If someone annoys her, it’s all because of class and privilege. Like me, she is staunchly working class and to us it’s often obvious that the “higher classes” have a very different outlook on life. This story has a very strong class element but it’s the “just desserts” aspect that I found particularly pleasing, especially as it had an unpromising start.

The majority of the action takes place somewhere on the Riviera, at a beach resort where a Marquise is on holiday with her two children and their nanny. She’s wealthy, bored and attractive and although she doesn’t actively seek a lover, her husband is more focused on his business than his wife. The little photographer is club-footed (well, it didn’t do Byron any harm) and although he works as a semi-professional photographer, he also takes pictures in his spare time of the landscape, the sea and the local wildlife.

One thing leads to another and…

I’m not going to give the end away, because I have to admit I found it quite delicious. If you believe that all actions have consequences – no matter how remote – and that nobody is untouchable, you will love it. It reminded me a lot of The Talented Mr Ripley, despite not having any similarities of plot or location – it’s vintage, it’s glamorous, it’s exotic and very, very wicked.

KISS ME AGAIN STRANGER

I was amazed to discover that this short story had also been filmed, this time starring a young Leonard Nimoy – presumably before he gained immortality as Spock – in the lead role. The story itself is simple and takes place over one evening; a shy young mechanic, finding himself at a loose end in London, goes to the pictures and ends up on an impromptu date with one of the usherettes. Falling madly in love (at first sight), what he discovers the following day changes everything.

Which, if you’re a suspicious old bat like me, has probably given the game away – but there is very little in the story that actually does so until the last couple of pages. Unfortunately, like other stories in this collection, it hasn’t aged very well although I think the fact that it is set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War actually works in the story’s favour – I suspect that the filmed version moved it to contemporary (early 1960s?) times and changed the location.

I must admit to guessing the twist wrong, although I got the suspect right – well, that was always going to be obvious really. It does make me miss the ice creams and orange juice I used to get at the cinema when I was a kid. Unfortunately the days of two features, an intermission, ice creams and drinks for less than a pound are long gone – you need a second mortgage for the cinema these days. I wonder if my obscure TV channel that shows old movies will think about putting this one on in the future. I’d quite like to see what they’ve changed.

THE OLD MAN

After reading six of Daphne du Maurier’s short stories one after the other, you would think I would have learned not to take things at face value. Clearly I haven’t, because the last paragraph of this wonderful short story completely took me by surprise. It really wasn’t what I thought it would be.

It is, essentially, the story of a family observed by a man who visits a riverbank regularly. The family live near the river, and he watches the couple as they bring up a family of four. He has given them names, but the son, in particular, is the focus of the story as his relationship with his family is much more dysfunctional. The story ends as tragedy strikes and the twist is revealed.

I really cannot say any more because that really will give the game away. It’s a beautifully dramatic little story, a perfect length and seductively told. Aside from The Birds, I think it is probably the best story of the lot. If you can, do try to pick it up and read this – and let me know if you worked out the twist before the end.

A Crooked House

Agatha Christie always said that her two favourites of her own novels were Ordeal by Innocence (which is one of my personal favourites too) and Crooked House; and it’s worth noting that neither of these novels features one of her well known detectives. Recent television adaptations have tinkered with this aspect – Ordeal by Innocence famously becoming a Miss Marple after the careful application of a crowbar and some WD40 – but I prefer the stories in their original form, as masterfully written psychological portraits. Yes, there are murders and a bit of necessary detective work in each, but it’s so nice to read stories without the Resident Clever-Clogs twiddling his moustache before declaring “It was YOU!”

In both Ordeal by Innocence and Crooked House, we have a wealthy yet completely dysfunctional family torn apart by a murder. In the former, the mother is found murdered and her son is hanged before an Antarctic explorer appears on the scene to suggest that actually he may have been innocent. In the latter, the wealthy patriarch is murdered with his own eye medicine and pretty much everyone has means, motive and opportunity. Each novel has a delicious twist at the end (which I won’t give away, because you are going to go away and read these novels now, aren’t you?) which raise important questions about the nature of justice, detection and what happens to those left behind when someone is murdered, especially if the killer is still at large.

This was something that was also explored in the first season of The Killing (still my favourite Nordic noir) but less so in the second, and not at all in the third. Crime writers still seem to think that the most important part of their novels has to be the killings and the detection, but almost forgetting that the victim may have had family and friends who feel powerless in the light of the tragedy. I think seeing things from the perspective of those left behind is just as fascinating as the forensic science and the cat and mouse chase. Crooked House is deceptively modern, despite being of similar age to my mum, and still an enjoyable read all these years later.

Arthur Evans’ Invention of the Minoan Civilisation

I went to Greece many years ago (and nearly never came back, but I’m not Shirley Valentine and that’s another story) and brought back a small concrete statue which I was told was Ariadne. Looking at it, though, it looks a little more like the Snake Goddesses which I always associate with Minoan culture – long, tightly curled hair, miniscule waist, stylized shapes. It would surprise me if it was, because I was on an entirely different island, but the similarities are there.

The thing that has startled me more than anything, though, is the fact that what we know about the Minoan culture may not actually be historically accurate. Discovered in the early 20th century by Arthur Evans in Knossos, such artefacts as exist are not only few and far between, but also not quite as stylized as modern reproductions make out. The problem is that Evans had a very distinct idea of what the Minoan civilisation SHOULD look like (rather than what it DID look like) and rebuilt the palace along those lines, using reinforced concrete which the Ancient Greeks certainly didn’t have access to. So those ruins in Crete that people traipse around are, actually, a modern representation of something that probably didn’t exist.

Given the standards of his time, Evans’ archaeology was actually quite thorough – he annotated everything and kept meticulous records. It’s just that he had a tendency to fit the facts to suit his theory. In Confronting the Classics, Mary Beard makes the point that many of the representations of the Minoans share more than a passing resemblance to Art Deco, which was starting to come into vogue at the time of his excavations. She also reminds her readers that Evelyn Waugh himself compared them to contemporaneous Vogue covers. They seem to be much more modern than they actually were.

Whether or not you think Evans was a fraud – and I’m not sure that he was, misguided though he may have been – one thing he did manage to do was get people interested in archaeology and Ancient Greek civilisation in a way that many of his contemporaries didn’t do. Even now, tourists go to see the temples and palaces at Knossos rather than the (unredeveloped) excavation at Mycenae. The imagery of Minoan culture perpetuated by Evans has stood the test of time and is instantly recognisable. It’s just a shame that it may not be entirely true.

The Catiline Conspiracy – An Early Example of Fake News

I am starting to come to the conclusion that one simply can’t trust a word Cicero says; like any politician, he was ambitious and wanted to progress as far as he could or, at the very least, retain his position. Because (I like to think) that politics in Rome were quite a bit different than they are today, Cicero thought nothing of embroidering the truth if he thought he would benefit of it – and the Catiline Conspiracy is the best case in point.

The only evidence we have of Catiline’s guilt is what Cicero tells us – that he was a revolutionary, planning to overthrow the state and Cicero has successfully foiled the Roman equivalent of a terrorist plot. It may be that this is entirely correct, but we simply don’t know because we have no evidence of Catiline’s defence. This is surprising because Cicero acted for the prosecution (as it were) and defence lawyers were considered the more “honourable” side. So where is the evidence to disprove Cicero’s assertion that Catiline is a master criminal?

Simply put, we don’t have it. Either it doesn’t exist (because nobody sought to defend Catiline), or it has been lost or destroyed over time. I cannot comment on the likelihood of either scenario but given what we do know about Cicero being self-serving, we have to be careful about taking his word as gospel. There is the possibility that Cicero’s speech against Catiline is a very early example of what we now know as fake news – Cicero’s career needed a boost and ejecting a slightly subversive senator on exaggerated charges would have done the trick nicely. We just can’t prove that this is what he did, as we only have his side of the story.

If you needed any evidence that Classics has a modern relevance, I suspect the Catiline conspiracy comes quite close to providing it.

Some Unpleasant Truths About Revolutions

I’m not sure that reading The Rebel is proving to be a good idea; not only am I having a number of illusions shattered, but I’m actually learning something, I’m not entirely sure I like what I’m learning, but I’m equally not entirely sure that now I’ve learned it, I can unlearn it. If you don’t want to be in the same position, don’t read any further – if you do, don’t blame me.

There are things about revolutions that I admit I’ve never thought about. Perhaps I am by nature a rebel, in that I’m always protesting about something, but I’m not really a revolutionary. There’s a significant difference, which Camus explains in great depth, but there are a few things that he pointed out that I would like to share with you, although I’m aware that some readers may view it as hair-splitting, semantics or (at best) high philosophy best discussed over a large absinthe.

For example, there is no such thing as a revolutionary government. A revolution is a complete change from what went before – so replacing a government with another government is achieving nothing and is certainly not a revolution. If you are aware of Hegel’s dialectic of history, you will probably follow this argument better, but if not, don’t worry. The best way to think about the nature of revolutions is as a clock – start at 12 with the status quo, work your way down to the revolution at 6 – the polar opposite of the status quo – then it inexorably works its way back round to 12 again, where the “revolution” has now become the status quo and a new revolution will follow. It’s a lot easier to imagine than to explain, I assure you.

Another thing is that revolutions always start with a murder, and that murder will always lead to more. Now, I’m not sure this is true in every case, and I’m fairly sure there are examples of non-violent revolutions, but I think Camus would probably argue that those examples are not true revolutions. All true revolutions start with a murder, and he explores (again, in considerable detail) both the French and Russian Revolutions* – and both of these involved regicide. On this basis, then, the English Civil War of the late 1640s would also be classed as a revolution, although that ended with the death of a monarch.

Now, the bit that follows is tricky to explain but I’m going to have a go. Once murder has been justified for revolutionary purposes – by murdering the monarch to remove the status quo – it is not then justifiable for the murder of anyone else to be prohibited. This almost inevitably leads to a terror, and this was the case both in 1790s Paris and in Russia in the late 1910s, where large scale purges of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie led to deaths on a massive scale. Again, if we apply this model to the English Civil War, we can see similar things happening – once Charles I had been executed, it was politically prudent to be Puritan, even if you thought it was a bit strict.

What this means is that true revolutions are extremely rare (and given that Camus only explores two, and I can only add one more to that, reinforces this point). It puts the so called “revolutionary rhetoric” into some context and I’m not sure I like it given that I read an awful lot of Marx in my younger (and probably more left wing) days. I certainly wasn’t advocating mass murder, but ultimately, that is what revolution will involve. If you’re okay with that, then you’re probably a true revolutionary. If not – well, I’m sticking to rebellion.

* But not the American one, interestingly. Perhaps he views this as a War of Independence, rather than a true revolution?

London’s Old Prisons

London used to be full of prisons. Most of them were extremely well known and some names are still familiar – more so if you read nineteenth century novels. Yet apart from Wormwood Scrubs, Pentonville, Holloway and Wandsworth, the overwhelming majority of prisons simply aren’t there any more. Having read Oliver Twist and Affinity (by Sarah Waters), I thought it might be interesting to have a look at some of the better known of London’s lost prisons.

Dickens mentions many of London’s prisons in his novels; in Oliver Twist it is Newgate, which at that time was the central criminal prison in London. The inmates were famous, and their exploits were regularly published in The Newgate Calendar, which also gave details of executions and sentences as well as the crimes. Some of the old cells now form part of the Old Bailey – I think they are holding cells for defendants on trial – but they can be viewed by appointment I believe.

Dickens also used the Marshalsea Prison as a setting in his novel Little Dorrit. Unlike Newgate, the Marshalsea was a debtors prison and it was demolished in 1852 with the inmates being moved. Dickens’ father was a debtor in the Marshalsea and all that remains of the building is a part of the original wall. It was situated in Southwark, just overlooking the river, and also housed men convicted of crimes at sea. However, given that nearly half London’s population were inmates of debtors’ prisons, you can guess what the majority of the inmates were there for.

Sarah Waters sets her second novel, Affinity, in Millbank Prison, a beautifully designed prison in Pimlico. It was both a men’s and women’s criminal prison and a holding facility for convicts awaiting transportation. It was loosely based on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, his vision of an ideal prison, being built in a “flower” shape. Unfortunately, the site was redeveloped, and Tate Britain now occupies most of the land, with the remainder forming part of Chelsea College of Art and Design.

Another ancient prison in London is The Fleet Prison in Farringdon, which started as a criminal facility and ended as a debtors’ prison. It went on to form part of Ludgate Station which, in turn, was redeveloped to be part of City Thameslink. However, if you want to find out what these old prisons were really like, it is possible to visit The Clink Prison Museum in Bankside, on the site of the original Clink Prison (“clink” is also a London slang term for a prison). They have put a great deal of effort in recreating some original cells and it would be a really interesting insight into (for example) Little Dorrit, if you happen to be reading that.

I must admit that given the number of Victorian prisons still operational – I live quite close to one – I’m surprised that so many have been mothballed. It is fair to say that the conditions weren’t wonderful, but given the current crisis of overcrowding, perhaps bringing some back online on a short term basis might not be a bad idea.

A Modern Oliver Twist

Now here’s a scary thought. Take a classic of Victorian literature and without changing the plot substantially, rewrite it in a modern setting. Can’t be done? Unfortunately, the only thing missing from a revamp of Oliver Twist would be the workhouse, and I’m not convinced we’re far away from its return. Pretty much everything else, including the criminal gangs and the magistrates’ courts, haven’t substantially changed. For a book that’s almost 190 years old, I think that’s pretty shocking.

Anyway, following this thought, here’s how it would go. A young pregnant woman, living on the streets, gives birth in hospital but dies in childbirth. The child is placed into foster care initially, and then into a children’s home where he runs away after being abused by the carers. He falls in with a gang of young boys who all share a squat with an older “mentor”, who fences what they steal. Their near neighbours are a prostitute and her partner, a violent burglar. Oliver is arrested for a petty theft he did not commit and is about to be convicted when the prosecution allows that new evidence has come to light indicating that he is innocent. Oliver briefly escapes the gang and lives with philanthropic Mr Brownlow, only to be kidnapped and returned to his former life of crime. However Nancy feels sorry for the boy, who is treated more cruelly than before, and arranges with Mr Brownlow to have Oliver legally returned to live with him., but Sikes discovers the ploy and murders her. Oliver flees, returns to Mr Brownlow only to discover that Brownlow is, in fact, his maternal grandfather and who arranges to adopt him.

That took me slightly less than ten minutes (it only took me that long because I forgot Mr Brownlow’s name and I had to look it up) and, as you can see, I’ve barely tweaked the plot at all. Isn’t it appalling that in two hundred years, such a story could still be told – and be believable? I don’t have solutions to such deep-seated problems, but it strikes me that in all that time, very little has been done to alleviate them. Indeed, the only real difference between the London of Oliver Twist and the London of now is the lack of a workhouse – but instead, we have food banks and charity shops. It’s not really good enough, is it?

A Dark Side to Oliver Twist

As if a story about organised gangs of child pickpockets, thievery and murder wasn’t dark enough… but I’m still reading the beginning of the novel, before the reader is introduced to Fagin, Artful Dodger and Bill Sikes – before, even, we move to the workhouse. You see, little Oliver starts his life at what was known as a baby farm, which were incredibly common in the Victorian era – and at least one provided an infamous serial murderer.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Baby farms were set up by women who essentially adopted unwanted children for money. Such children were often born of unmarried mothers, who would then return to their former lives without apparently suffering the stigma of giving birth out of wedlock. The care in these baby farms varied from the basic but healthy to the barest minimum; Mrs Mann, who cares for Oliver in the novel, falls somewhere between the two, but I would wager towards the lower end of the scale.

Unsurprisingly, such an easy means of making money led to some unscrupulous behaviour, and none more so than Amelia Dyer, a notorious baby farmer in Reading who, over the period of twenty years, murdered an unknown number of infants whom she had “adopted”, usually by strangulation but sometimes also by neglect and starvation although I suspect an over-generous dose of laudanum may well have helped them along. Because of the social stigma attaching to the natural mothers, many children went unchecked and so the neglect of the adoptive parent frequently went unreported. Amelia Dyer was hanged in 1896 at Newgate, although the exact number of her victims remains unknown. There is a possibility that her daughter, Polly, was also complicit in some of the murders, but this was never proven and the charges against her were dropped.

The scandal and public outcry created by the murders did lead to substantial changes in the law surrounding adoption, and effectively rendered baby farming illegal. Perhaps this is just as well. In this respect, one must assume that Oliver was fortunate to have reached his eighth birthday and return to the workhouse, although the treatment there probably wasn’t much better than what he had already endured.