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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Law and Disorder (1940)

I have always had an extremely soft spot for the eccentric Scottish character actor Alastair Sim.  Although he appeared in more than 60 films, less than half of these are classics. However, his lugubrious presence, with his great bald head, lidded eyes, and gangling gait added a memorable presence to even the worst of his movies -- nearly making each of them worth watching just for his turn.  His best years known as his 'green period' were bookended by "Green for Danger" (1946) and "The Green Man" (1956); he also made his mark during these years in "Geordie", "Laughter in Paradise", "Hue and Cry", "The Happiest Days of Your Life", the unflappable Miss Frinton in the original "The Belles of St. Trinian's", and of course as the absolutely definitive Scrooge. Early indelible roles included the incompetent police sergeant in the "Inspector Hornleigh" films and he was still a wonder to behold as the batty bishop in 1972's "The Ruling Class".


When I noticed that the National Film Theatre had unearthed the above little-known film from its archives for a single showing, I immediately booked tickets. The movie is so obscure that the Halliwell film guide cross-references it to the 1939 B-flick "Spies in the Air", which has the same writer and director and much the same cast, but in which Sim definitely does not appear.  We were surprised to find that the largest of the NFT's three screens was jam-packed (mainly, let it be said, with a rather elderly audience -- who obviously hold Sim in as much affection as we do). Pity that the film wasn't better!!!  Despite the fact that his name was prominently above the title (the film was re-released in 1951 when Sim's was a name to reckon), he is only a supporting player here.  The main lead is one Barry K. Barnes, a 30s' matinee idol, with whom Sim had appeared earlier in "This Man is News" (1936).  Barnes plays the junior partner in Sim's law firm. He and his wife (Diana Churchill) have a joshing relationship, with is very sub-Nick and Nora Charles, as he tries to unmask a nest of German spies by representing them in court appearances.  Sim only gets to act flustered,  be flirtatious with a dumpy female client, and protestingly land up behind bars on trumped up charges (Barnes believes his partner's life is in danger and has done this to protect him -- none of which made much sense.)


The film was directed by David Macdonald, known only for the so-called 'quota quickies' with nothing terribly distinguished in his filmography.  The screenplay by Roger MacDougall was also not much cop, although he did go on to scribe "The Man in the White Suit" (1951) and "The Mouse that Roared" (1959). The playing of most of the cast was both dated and stilted, and without Sim's support the movie would have been a complete waste of time, although the actor playing police inspector Edward Chapman's side-kick was mildly amusing (not that I have any idea who he was) and one of the spies provided an early role for Leo Genn who went on to a much more distinguished career.  This is a film that only completists need seek out.


The evening, however, was not a complete waste of time since the showing was preceded by a fifteen minute short from the BBC's archives from a series called "Speaking Personally".  Here Sim delivers a monologue to the camera concerning the difficulties of delivering a monologue to camera.  We were regaled with fifteen minutes of his wonderful body language, his array of wry faces as he demonstrated camera poses, and his absolutely deadpan humour.  Wonderful!

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