by Bill Stamets

Strange shadows on screen: Brit Noir at the Gene Siskel Film Center

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on November 14, 2016

A strange film vein comes to light in the Brit Noir series continuing at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 North State, through November 30. Upper-crust crooks, doomed dames, pervy plots, swinging scores and moral mayhem impart an irresistible weirdness to the five black-and-white dramas I previewed so far.

The eight titles in the line-up were released between 1946 and 1965. One that circulated in black-and-white is presented here with its color restored. Carol Reed directs two; John Ford one.

Among titles already screened is “Never Take Candy from a Stranger” (1960) directed by Cyril Frankel and shot by Freddie Francis. The opening `square-up’ touts: “This story– like its characters– is fictitious. It is set in Canada. But it could happen anywhere and it could be true.”

The new high school principal– a Canadian who left at age 10– brings his English wife and their 9-year-old daughter Jean (Janina Faye, who would appear two years later in “The Day of the Triffids”) to an eastern Canadian town. “Some of her best friends are foreigners,” quips the art teacher apologizing for a sniffy neighbor at the welcoming party.

In the opening scene, the local pervert and town patriarch peers through his binoculars at Jean and her pal Lucille playing on a swing. Lucille tells Jean the creep will give them sweets. We do not see the girls undress and dance for him, but Jean will so testify in court. Lurid psychological local color ensues in this “go-ahead” sawmill town with a “colonial” chip on its shoulder.

English boys and girls of the same age are told to undress– in proximity to a Geiger counter– in “These Are the Damned” (1962), directed by Joseph Losey. An American yachtsman runs afoul of seaside locals. First, there’s a gang whose signature tune goes:
Black Leather Black Leather Smash Smash Smash
Black Leather Black Leather Crash Crash Crash
Black Leather Black Leather Kill Kill Kill
(Single, double or triple exclamation points probably belong after every word in these lyrics.)
Then we meet nine radioactive children hidden in a secret underground lab. Government experimenters told them they are in a spaceship. Sci-fi social commentary mixes up a modernist sculptor with a delinquent clique in this hybrid exploitation art film.

“90 Degrees in the Shade” (1965) is decidedly more continental in sensibility. Shot in Prague with English dialogue, this Czechoslovakia/ UK coproduction directed by Jirí Weiss compares with other Brit Noirs by channeling sexual anxiety. It starts at a riverside swim park on a hot summer day. The miserably married Mr. Kurka (Rudolph Hrusínský, “The Cremator”)– bound in a six-button vest– leers at bathing beauties before auditing a shop with inventory irregularities.

The adulterous manager and his clerk Alena (Anne Heywood, “The Depraved” and “The Nun and the Devil”) are caught replacing the cognac with tea in 79 bottles of Martell and Courvoisier. The Jazz Orchestra of Czech Radio supplies a beat-noir setting for this moralizing sketch of an existentially wronged woman. Wry despair on the Vltava. Screens 6 p.m. Monday, November 14.

More malfeasance in a place of business transpires in “Cash on Demand” (1961), directed by Quentin Lawrence. Based on a play by the one-time owner of Herman Göering’s Mercedes, the plot is confined to the Haversham Branch of City & Colonial Bank. On December 23rd, a conman impersonates an insurance inspector, leans on a Scroogey small town bank manager (Peter Cushing, who joined Janina Faye in the “Dracula” of 1958), and absconds with £93,000. The dialogue is crafty, although there’s none of the erotic tension detectable elsewhere in the series. Screens 4:55 p.m. November 26 and 6 p.m. November 28.

“Wanted for Murder” (1946) is especially polished next to the more pulpy movies in Brit Noir. Lawrence Huntington directs a London thriller rather in the style of Alfred Hitchcock. Eric Portman, seen in three Powell & Pressburger films, here plays a serial killer dubbed “The Strangler.” The executioner to Queen Victoria figures in his lineage and he smashes the skull of his likeness on display in a horror museum. It’s a bloodline that dooms this toff to off one woman after another. The New Scotland Yard is on the case. Psychosexual class issues are on the couch. Screens 5 p.m. November 19 and 6 p.m. November 21.