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A Classic British Cinema Primer

British cinema has arguably never gotten the critical respect it deserves – in part because the influential French critics of the 1950s (who would later become filmmakers themselves and form the backbone of the Nouvelle Vague) always had an irrational prejudice against it. As a critic, Francois Truffaut famously and snobbishly declared that there was an incompatibility between the very words “British” and “cinema,” and, decades later, Jean-Luc Godard used his magnum opus Histoire(s) du Cinema to unfairly attack the postwar British cinema for “doing what it has always done — nothing.” But as the list of titles below should make clear, the British cinema of the postwar years was a true golden age, a period in which a bunch of hard-working filmmakers were able to do good, unpretentious work. These films, a baker’s dozen, span the prewar years of the early sound era (mostly so that I could include Alfred Hitchcock) through the late 1950s, when British movies were made according to a studio system directly analogous to that of Hollywood. The 1960s saw the industry undergo a sea change with the relaxing of censorship laws and the introduction of Angry Young Men and Kitchen Sink Realism, but that will be the subject of another post . . . 

Again I’m limiting myself to one film per director in the interest of diversity. It should almost go without saying that anyone interested in classic British cinema should make it a point to see all of the major films of Hitchcock and Powell/Pressburger.

Night Mail (Watt/Wright, 1936)

Inspired by similar Soviet movies, this superb 25 minute documentary illustrates how mail is sorted, collected and delivered on a single “mail only” midnight train from London to Edinburgh. No mere educational film, this priceless time capsule captures the spirit of a vanished age even if its portrayal of dedicated, efficient government employees taking immense pride in their work is romanticized. The scene that demonstrates the innovative method of how mail bags are collected (without needing to slow down or stop the train) is shot and edited like a Hitchcock suspense sequence. Among the prodigiously talented people who worked on it were poet W.H. Auden, who wrote the excellent, rhyming verse narration, and composer Benjamin Britten, whose score, like Auden’s verse, works to emulate the sounds of a chugging locomotive. There are other British documentaries more famous than this, especially from the war years, but none strike me as being as quintessentially British as this.

The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, 1939)

It seems that 1935’s The 39 Steps has become the consensus pick for the masterpiece of Hitchcock’s British period but, while I do love that film unreservedly, I love this outrageously entertaining spy caper even more. While aboard a transcontinental train, Iris, a beautiful young Englishwoman, befriends Miss Froy, an elderly woman who mysteriously disappears. In a signature nightmarish paranoid/conspiracy theory plot, Hitchcock has all of the other passengers deny that Froy was ever on the train, which causes Iris to question her sanity. It’s up to Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut), an unflappably witty ethnomusicologist, to help Iris get to the bottom of the mystery. This is one of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining films, which is saying a lot, in part because of the colorful supporting players; I’m particularly fond of the hilarious slapstick brawl between Gilbert, Iris and a nefarious Italian magician. As someone who wore out his public domain VHS copy as a teenager, I am exceedingly grateful to the Criterion Collection for their impeccable 2011 blu-ray.

Henry V (Olivier, 1944)

It’s only right to include at least one of Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptation on a list of classic British films. While some might opt for 1948’s Oscar-winning Hamlet or 1955’s Richard III, I’ll take Sir Larry’s directorial debut, which is also a dramatization of my favorite Shakespeare play. Olivier’s innovative version of Henry V is gorgeously photographed in three-strip Technicolor and ingeniously begins as a documentary-style film of an authentic Globe Theatre production, complete with visible and audible audience reactions, before “opening up” into an intensely cinematic adaptation with epic battle scenes involving real locations and hundreds of extras on horseback. That this was also an attempt to boost British wartime morale, most obvious in Henry’s “Once more unto the breach” and “St. Crispin’s Day” monologues, makes the film even more poignant in hindsight.

Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945)

David Lean will probably always be best remembered for lavish, 70mm-photographed Oscar-friendly pictures like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but I think his relatively early Brief Encounter remains the high point of his career. It’s a minimalist story of adulterous love as “brief” and compressed as the later films are expansive and epic, and arguably all the more effective for it. The performances of Trevor Howard and doe-eyed Celia Johnson as the star-crossed lovers and the script by Noel Coward are all world class. In a memorable line of dialogue, Celia’s Laura says “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” If “violence” can be considered purely emotional then this is one of the most violent movies ever made.

Dead of Night (Cavalcanti/Crichton/Dearden/Hamer, 1945)

“Omnibus” movies, feature-length anthologies of short films created by multiple writers/directors, invariably feel inconsistent and uneven. The Ealing Studios horror anthology Dead of Night is one of the best exceptions to the rule. A linking narrative shows an architect arriving at a party at a country home where he is overcome with a sense of deja vu. Once there, he is regaled with stories told by various guests that serve as the basis for the film’s four tales: Christmas Party and The Ventriloquist’s Dummy by Alberto Cavalcanti, Golfing Story by Charles Crichton, Hearse Driver by Basil Dearden and The Haunted Mirror by Robert Hamer. The stories balance each other out beautifully, from the darkly humorous to the genuinely scary, and are wonderfully tied together in the end. Michael Redgrave’s performance as the ventriloquist is a creepy high point. Fans of horror and/or British cinema can’t afford to miss this.

Brighton Rock (Boulting, 1947)

John Boulting’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel centers on Pinkie, a young, low level gangster who commits a hit at the beginning of the film and then romances Rose, the working class waitress who is the only witness to the crime. He agrees to marry her in order to keep her quiet, while she thinks she can change him for the better. Future director Richard Attenborough is electrifying as Pinkie, especially as the character’s behavior becomes increasingly pathological while trying to keep the police at bay. There are also great noir-ish visuals, authentically seedy locations and one of the most cruelly ironic endings in cinema. This is quite simply the best of the British gangster movies.

The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, 1948)

As “The Archers,” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collectively wrote and directed the most extraordinary movies of the golden age of British cinema and The Red Shoes is their masterpiece. Taking its inspiration from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, this beautiful, visually baroque Technicolor extravaganza tells the story of a ballerina (Moira Shearer) who is torn between the desires of her heart and the quest for perfection in her craft. The highlight is the title ballet sequence, a fifteen minute scene employing dozens of dancers and over a hundred painted backdrops, shot and cut together as a thrilling spectacle of pure cinema. One of the great films about obsession. One of the great films about the artistic process. One of the great films period.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer, 1949)

When Louis Mazzini discovers he is a distant, bastard heir of the “Duke of D’Ascoyne” he decides to murder the eight relatives who stand between him and the title. Alec Guinness is delightful playing eight(!) different roles in the extended D’Ascoyne family, including one female part, but it is Dennis Price as Mazzini who steals the show. His droll voice over narration, containing some of the wittiest English language dialogue ever written, provides the dark heart of this blackest of Ealing comedies.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

In Carol Reed’s classic British noir Joseph Cotton stars Holly Martins, a dime store novelist who travels to Vienna to visit childhood pal Harry Lime only to find that his friend has recently died in a mysterious accident. Martins’ belief that Lime was murdered inspires a personal investigation that leads him deep into the morally dubious heart of the postwar European black market as well as into a love affair with Lime’s beautiful girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Among the film’s unforgettable ingredients are the catchy zither score by Anton Karas, the legendary extended cameo by Orson Welles and the cinematography of Robert Krasker, whose use of dutch angles and chiaroscuro lighting make the rubble-strewn Viennese streets look positively lunar.

The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951)

Another Ealing Studios comedy gem starring Alec Guinness, this time as a mild-mannered bank clerk who masterminds a scheme to steal gold bullion from his employers, melt it down and smuggle it out of the country as souvenir toy models of the Eiffel Tower. Charles Crichton, best known for directing A Fish Called Wanda thirty seven years later, keeps the tone light and clever and the pacing swift during the lean 81 minute running time. The film does however achieve a certain gravitas due to the genuinely poignant friendship that develops between Guinness’ bank clerk and the small-time artist played by Stanley Holloway who agrees to help him.

The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955)

If you only see one Ealing comedy, this should be it. Alec Guinness (again!) gives arguably his finest comic performance as the leader of a gang of inept robbers who pose as classical musicians and rent a room from an elderly widow in order to plot their latest heist. Unfortunately for the crooks, but fortunately for film lovers, nothing goes according to plan in Alexander Mackendrick’s masterful blend of verbal wit and hilarious sight gags. Bolstered by a terrific cast (including early performances by Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers) and beautiful Technicolor cinematography, this is a near-perfect comedy.

Dracula (AKA Horror of Dracula) (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Another prerequisite for any list of essential British movies is the inclusion of something from the cycle of classic Hammer horror films from the mid to late 1950s. Many of these titles were reworkings of the Universal Studios monster movies of the 1930s but updated to include gorier effects and color cinematography. My personal favorite is Terence Fisher’s Dracula, which features the unbeatable team of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as the title bloodsucker. Like Murnau with Nosferatu, Fisher knew that less was more when it came to horror; Lee’s screen time is extremely brief, which gives his Count Dracula that much more impact.

Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1959)

This is one of those films in which one can arguably feel the end of one era and the beginning of another. Laurence Harvey is Joe, an angry young man from a working class background who opportunistically conspires to marry the daughter of his wealthy factory owner boss. His plan is complicated when he falls in love with Alice (Simone Signoret), an older Frenchwoman who is unhappily married. Joe’s attempts to carry on both affairs simultaneously inevitably ends in tragedy. The dialogue and performances here are more naturalistic than what came before in British movies, including a much more frank attitude toward sexuality. Harvey is terrific as the social climber but it is the magnificent, Oscar-winning performance by Signoret as the sad-eyed older woman that broke my bloody heart.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

19 responses to “A Classic British Cinema Primer

  • Zach

    I’m a huge fan of British pop culture. I think they’ve produced some of the most intricate and funniest films ever. But I haven’t seen anything on this list except The Ladykillers, which is one of my all-time favorite comedies.

  • michaelgloversmith

    I just saw a lot of these films for the first time last year in order to prepare for this list. I agree that The Ladykillers is one of the greatest comedies ever.

    I think you would really like The Horror of Dracula, which is my favorite Dracula adaptation after Nosferatu. It has probably the best Dracula (Christopher Lee) and the best Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). But you should probably wait for the forthcoming blu-ray release, which is going to include restored footage that was cut by censors upon its original release. You can read about it here:

    http://www.hammerfilms.com/news/article/newsid/314/dracula-resurrected

  • Zach

    Thanks. I usually prefer director’s cuts and restored versions because they seem more authentic and more faithful to the director’s personal interpretation.

    This particular Dracula adaptation has had my attention for a while but I’ve just never gotten to it, and I really want to see the Nosferatu 1970s remake, since I loved the original.

    What’s your opinion on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of Dracula? For me, it’s one of my favorite horror films, with a perfectly cast Gary Oldman and truly horrific, gothic feel.

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  • michaelgloversmith

    I love Coppola’s Dracula from the point of view of production design/cinematography/old school special effects. That is one beautiful movie! Unfortunately, I think it’s also miscast: Reeves and Ryder are laughable and even the “respectable” actors like Oldman and Hopkins tend to go over the top. But it’s such a beautiful movie that I have returned to it again and again.

    The Nosferatu remake is awesome.

  • david

    I’m glad you mentioned Dead of Night,Mike,what a great horror film mixed with suspense and humor!!

    I too,would choose The Lady Vanishes over 39 Steps and Red Shoes over other M/P film and The Ladykillers over Whiskey Galore!,Archers and Earling Studio are amazing!!

    I’ve only seen Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS,loved it a lot,since you choose RATT over it,I would expect it to be a very good one.

  • Ben Herzberger

    Very interesting list. I’m about to download a movie from iTunes. WHICH MOVIE WILL MAKE THE CUT. They all sound great. (Oh wait, I bet a lot of these are not at all in iTunes’ library.) I was so pissed a couple weeks back when I tried to get a Bresson movie (not even one there). On that note, Bresson’s wikipedia page is remarkably short. That one Kind Hearts and Coronets sounds very interesting, as does the last one on that list. I’m not sure I can see Dracula, that picture is too horrifying.

  • michaelgloversmith

    Ben, if you see only one comedy on this list it should be The Ladykillers. If you see only one drama it should be The Red Shoes.

    David, I love The Innocents and I could have easily included it. I was trying to use 1959 as a cut-off date.

  • Zach

    What’re your opinions of modern British filmmakers Edgar Wright and Paul W.S. Anderson?

    • michaelgloversmith

      I like them both. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim are all very clever genre-busting movies that overflow with a kind of visual wit that I find particularly gratifying. (Though Scott should have chosen Knives!) I’m less familiar with Anderson, having only seen the first Resident Evil movie and Event Horizon but I liked them both a lot. That guy is an incredible visual stylist and I’d like to see more of his work.

  • Zach

    Have you seen a documentary called, These Amazing Shadows?

  • Zach

    No. It’s a documentary I recently saw about the importance of the National Film Registry. It’s rather broad but I think you’d enjoy it.

    Have you ever submitted nominations to the Registry?

  • Zach

    As soon as I heard, I immediately went and submitted my own list.

    How it works is they show you a list of movies that have been selected and another of films yet to be selected. You basically E-Mail a list of your own nominees and whichever ones appear most from public submission are considered for preservation. But they only do American movies, which leaves off a lot of good possible entries. Nominations can range from feature films to short films and even home movies.

  • Omar Pineda

    While like both Godard and Truffaut, they’re both completely wrong about the British and cinema. Also, The Red Shoes is a pretty emotionally violent film itself. Totally amazing movie. That film on it’s own proves them wrong in my opinion.

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