The Venetian Vase celebrated its sixth birthday recently. In those six years, I’d say about 40 to 50% of the posts have been about James Ellroy. Of course I enjoy blogging about other forms of crime or genre fiction, from the James Bond films to Scandinavian crime fiction and even niche subjects like Eurosceptic and anti-Establishment fiction. However, I have been researching Ellroy’s life and work for years. He’s the subject of my PhD, and I have edited one book and written another on the author, so I was able in that time to keep this blog updated with elements of my ongoing research on Ellroy. Therefore, I’ve decided to create a new archival page on this blog featuring all of my substantial posts on Ellroy. You’ll find the new James Ellroy page at the top of this website next to the Books, About and Contact pages or simply follow this link.
My new book James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction is published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of their Crime Files Series. I’ll be blogging a lot about the book nearer its October 21 release date. Meanwhile, you can find information on the book and pre-order a copy from Palgrave’s website or Amazon.
The ‘James Ellroy: Visions of Noir’ conference was held at the University of Liverpool, 2 July 2015. My wife and I organised the conference, and it was a wonderful experience to meet academics, students and Ellroy enthusiasts from Brazil, Germany, Australia, Spain and of course the United Kingdom. Thank you to everyone who came and shared their research on the Demon Dog. We were also honoured to welcome two wonderful guest speakers: Martin Edwards and Woody Haut. You can read Woody’s talk here.
Martin Edwards discussed his new book The Golden Age of Murder:
A speaker gives a talk on power relations in the Underworld USA trilogy:
A delegate brought along a Portugese translation of The Black Dahlia which featured strikingly sinister artwork:
And here’s some of the artwork which features at the beginning of every chapter:
Thanks again to everyone who attended and made the conference a wonderful event.
The 1960 Los Angeles setting of Woody Haut’s Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime is a pivotal year in American history: Power shifted from the Republicans to the Democrats as the Presidency was passed from Eisenhower to Kennedy. Social conservatism was swept away by sexual liberation and the Civil Rights movement, and the Blues sound pioneered by artists such as Muddy Waters, Skip James and Son House was adapted into the commercially successfully rock and pop style of, among others, British Invasion bands.
One man well placed to observe this history in the making is Abe Howard. A brilliant, unscrupulous freelance news reporter, Howard has built a reputation on his knack for getting the best images at crime scenes. Known by his colleagues, including the legendary Weegee, as ‘Abe on the spot’, Abe took photos of the bloodied corpses at the St Valentine’s Day massacre and opened the eyes of John Dillinger’s lifeless body outside the Biograph cinema in order to get the most striking image possible. But if Abe’s work has brought him close to the thrill of violence, it has also worn him down and made him a middle-aged cynic: ‘Fourteen years he’d been in Los Angeles, and he had nothing to show for it other than a bunch of negatives and some nightmarish images.’ The brutal murder of a young black jazz musician, Jimmy Estes, sparks a chain of events that will test Abe’s ability to endure this noir world. The photos he takes at the crime scene lead Abe to incur the wrath of LA Mob kingpin Mickey Cohen. Abe also tempts fate when he starts an affair with a woman potentially connected to the case, a blonde, alluring enough, in Raymond Chandler’s words, ‘to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window’. But will his infidelity come at the loss of his wife and kids?
Haut is a renowned critic of crime fiction and film noir, and the reader will be aware of another, more metafictional pivotal moment in the 1960 setting as noir transitioned from what some critics deem to be classic or ‘legitimate’ noir period from 1941 to the late 1950s to the more self-conscious, colourful neo-noirs of 1960 onwards. Haut chose this setting ‘Not as nostalgia for a world gone by, but as the story of the city at a particular time and place, when, as someone once said, the old world was dying and the new had yet to be born.’ Haut deftly steers the narrative through the birth of this new world by essentially merging crime fiction styles. Abe’s lover Kim bears a striking, almost sinister resemblance to Lana Turner, and the LA lore sub-plot behind Turner, her daughter Cheryl Crane and the killing of Johnny Stompanato was reminiscent of a classic noir age when gangsters thought of themselves as movie stars and a thin line separated Hollywood and organised crime. In contrast, the late introduction of two bickering hit men reminded me of a contemporary practitioner of the genre.
We tend see what we want to see in some stories, and there were many plot details and stylistic flourishes I thought could be influenced by or references to James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. The clipped, hardboiled prose at times felt particularly Ellrovian. This is not a limitation on the novel, however, far from it. Haut’s noir prose and dialogue bring the narrative to life so that the more you read, the more the thought of external influences are swept away by what Emory Holmes II describes as Haut’s ‘horizontal poetry':
A fresh-faced actress snorting cocaine with her underage girlfriend in the back of a limousine. Snap. An ageing, but tearful, starlet in flagrante delicto with a sixteen year old boy. Snap. An up-and-coming young actor fucking that very same boy in the actor’s souped-up, cherry-red ‘53, accompanied on the car radio by the latest Chuck Berry song. “Oh shit, here comes trouble,” Mitchum would say when he saw Abe.
Indeed, Abe’s photographs are in themselves a form of poetry, telling a story both factually and aesthetically through the visual image. Some of the most pleasurable moments in the novel come through the banter and petty rivalry that exists between a group of 78 RPM Blues record collectors. For these quirky outsiders, the Blues sound is the highest form of poetry and the gramophone is to them what the camera is to Abe, but they too find that the murder of Jimmy Estes means they can no longer pursue their interests with objective distance. As Abe is plunged deeper and deeper into the repercussions of the Estes murder, the story comes to a gripping climax. Haut has crafted a seminal crime novel in Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime, referencing both the history of noir and taking it into new territory. Highly recommended.
Who would be your ideal guest at dinner party? It’s a question often posed (although never I assume at dinner parties), to discern something of the speaker’s interests. I’ve never quite known how to answer that question, but after reading Martin Edwards The Golden Age of Murder, I’ve decided that rather than invite a famous person to dinner in an ideal world, I would invite myself to one of the Detection Club dinners in the 1930s or 1940s. Over crème brûlée and cognac I could eavesdrop on John Dickson Carr discuss his masterwork The Hollow Man (1935) before he segued into a rant about the socialist policies of the Attlee Government or G.K. Chesterton debate the wording of the Club’s initiation oath in between discussions of ecclesiastical matters. Like the plot of many a classic mystery, Edwards has used a deceptively simple setting and starting point, a dining society, to examine ‘The mystery of the writers who invented the modern detective story’. It’s cast of characters include Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Croft and Edmund Crispin to name but a few of the writers who produced their best work in the period John Strachey dubbed ‘The Golden Age of Detection Fiction’.
Martin Edwards is the bestselling author of the Harry Devlin novels and Lake District Mysteries and also happens to be the Detection Club’s archivist, a position which made him the ideal candidate to write The Golden Age of Murder. Edwards brings his skill as a novelist to approach the history of the Golden Age as a mystery that needs to be solved. What made these writers tick? Why did some authors walk away from the genre while others dedicated their lives to mysteries? And what about the cases they discussed over the boozy Detection Club lunches at the Dorchester and pondered over long into the night in their studies? One of Edwards aims with this history is to elevate the Golden Age above the lazy criticism which has dismissed the genre as cozy, predictable and without literary merit. On the last point, Edwards gives details of many literary figures, P.G. Wodehouse, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and Cecil Day Lewis, who either admired or produced works of detective fiction. As an Americanist, I was reminded of Raymond Chandler’s famous quote on Dashiell Hammett, which gives this blog its name:
Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to begin by getting as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing. […] Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.
Chandler’s words have a generous dose of ironic humour, but his basic idea carries great weight in critical circles – that hardboiled realism replaced the flippant style of the Golden Age. Edwards seeks to debunk this myth in part by looking at the true crime cases which inspired Golden Age writers. It is easy to see how past generations were in turn fascinated and repulsed by murder just as much as they are today even though twenty-four hour media means we are often saturated by graphic images. Doctor Crippen’s poisoning of his wife Cora, and the events leading to the execution of Herbert Rowse Armstrong (the only solicitor to be hanged in the UK), inspired Anthony Berkeley to write Malice Aforethought (1931). The novel was an early example of the ‘inverted detective story’, and it also gave Berkeley a platform to express his sympathy for Crippen, the wronged adulterer trapped in a marriage to a woman who ‘deserved murdering’. It was in both the criminal cases and the characters of Crippen and Armstrong which inspired stories radical in their exploration of forensic science and psychological profiles. There are many cases referenced in The Golden Age of Murder — one that had me hooked in particular was the murder of Joseph Bowne Elwell, the original ‘real-life locked room mystery’, which inspired S.S. Van Dine’s The Benson Murder Case (1926).
The constant talk of murder is alleviated, or perhaps should I say enhanced, by Edwards dry wit. He compares Dorothy L Sayers obstinacy towards rewrites, ‘No, no! I will not alter a word…’, to Margaret Thatcher’s famous triple no, and his description of R. Austin Freeman’s character of Romney Pringle is priceless: ‘Pringle is a villain who masquerades as a ‘literary agent’ – a concept which might strike a chord with some writers.’
Are there any flaws? I can’t think of any obvious ones, but Edwards does mention the natural limitations of historical research in the acknowledgements of the book:
I met, spoke to or corresponded with members of the families of several early members of the Detection Club. Understandably, memories of events dating back more than half a century were often hazy, but their reminiscences gave me a fuller understanding of the past. Once or twice, I felt there was a danger of intruding on private unhappiness; the legitimate public interest in such things has its limits, and I have striven to reflect that in writing this book.
But in drawing attention to how we will never have a complete knowledge of the era, Edwards achievement seems all the more remarkable. He sheds new light on Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance and Dorothy L. Sayers lifelong guilt over her illegitimate child. There are other revelations which I won’t mention here as I don’t want to give the game away, but Mark Lawson’s incisive review of the book for the Guardian accurately conveys how Edwards employs the detective story as a form of historical technique:
He [Edwards] succeeds by adopting the tease-and-reveal structure of a mystery story. The opening chapter notes that two leading golden age authors, unable to leave their marriages, conducted a love affair hinted at in coded notes and clues in their books. But the identity of the couple is withheld for 400 pages until a coda which attaches a new significance to their plots involving the horrible deaths of spouses.
Even the endnotes are crammed with so many fascinating tidbits that if you blink you’ll miss things. I didn’t know, for instance, that as a young man Len Deighton once served Agatha Christie champagne when he was working as a BOAC flight attendant. He reminded her of the incident years later when he was admitted to the Detection Club. Furthermore, I was constantly scribbling down titles of works Edwards claims are unjustly forgotten but could now, with this book and renewed interest in the genre, see new life. Titles I made note of for future reading included Israel Rank (1907), A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934) and a parody of hardboiled crime fiction ‘The Policeman Only Taps Once’. All in all, The Golden Age of Murder is an important and absorbing history which reminds us, like the episodes of Poirot and Sherlock which draw in massive audiences, that the enduring popularity of Golden Age detective fiction transcends the critical snobbery which has accompanied it.
In his essay ‘Out of the Past’, James Ellroy describes how ‘Half-buried memories speak to me.’ A few of these ‘brief synaptic blips […] transmogrify into fiction.’ It was a faded memory of Dick Contino, the star accordion player whose career never fully recovered being imprisoned for draft dodging during the Korean War, that Ellroy claimed was a major, but unconscious, influence on his writing of the LA Quartet.
Dick Contino began his meteoric rise to fame in 1947 when he won the Horace Heidt talent contest at the age of 17. How he won his fame, lost it, and then subsequently rebuilt his career has all the hallmarks of a classic Ellroy story. Contino’s skill as an accordionist made him a heartthrob. He had over 500 fan clubs across the country, dated Gloria DeHaven and Piper Laurie, and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 48 times. Ellroy describes his childhood memory of Contino as ‘A man gyrating with an accordion – pumping his “Stomach Steinway” for all it’s worth.’ However, things started to go downhill when Contino was drafted for the Korean War. Contino started suffering from panic attacks, but the army still judged him fit to serve. The day before he was due to be inducted into the army, Contino suffered another bout of anxiety and took off. His disappearance became a media sensation, and the FBI became involved in the hunt to find him. After surrendering to federal authorities, Contino was sentenced to six months in jail and fined ten thousand dollars.
I had some knowledge of Contino’s life through Ellroy’s writing on him, but I wanted to find out more about the man and purchased the only biography of Contino I could find. Accordian Man: The Legendary Dick Contino (1994) is a fairly slim bio written by Contino’s friend Bob Bove. Bove’s writing is suffused with an admiration for his subject that verges on the hagiographic, but the book is useful as a chronological account of Contino’s life, and by the end I found myself being won over by its all-American optimism. There were plenty of snippets of info I found interesting, such as this one from Contino’s trial:
On the day he was to be sentenced, Contino stepped into an elevator and, to his surprise, encountered Judge A.P. Roche who was presiding at the trial. In the solitude of the elevator car, Contino poured out his heart to the judge, telling him that he’d changed his mind – that he would gladly serve his country. To Contino’s surprise, Roche refused his offer.
“I’m not interested in your offer, Mr. Contino,” the Judge stated. “I’ve decided to use you as an example to others who seek to avoid military service.”
And this one, from Contino’s time in prison at McNeil Island:
In prison, Contino became close friends with Jim Coletti, his cellmate and a convicted murderer.
“Jim Coletti was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met,” Dick recalls fondly. “He befriended me at a time when many people turned their backs on me.”
“Often, when I would get the blues, Jim gave me the support that I needed to carry. He encouraged me to continue performing while I’m in prison and, he never missed a performance.”
“No matter what happens, I’ll never forget him.”
The only Jim Coletti I can find who matches this description is James Colletti, who became the Boss of the Denver Crime Family. Contino did occasional private performances for the Mob later in his career, so perhaps his cellmate was the future Mafia Boss. Bove however, is not so much interested in gossip as in vindicating the disgraced accordionist. He details how Contino was shipped to Korea after he served his sentence, and this is where the author met him. Contino served his country with distinction and was honourably discharged with numerous military commendations. Contino slowly and successfully started to rebuild his career, but he found himself blackballed from some gigs and booed by audiences because of his reputation as a draft dodger. The public seemed unaware that after completing his sentence Contino had served his country without complaint. Ellroy himself admits his childhood opinion of Contino was coloured by his father’s dismissal of the accordionist, “That guy’s no good. He’s a draft dodger”, when he appeared on TV. Shortly thereafter, the young Ellroy saw Contino playing the lead in the B-Movie Daddy-O (1958). The film was universally slated and has been mocked in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Clearly Contino took the role as he was struggling to find work, and looking back on the film many years later, Ellroy believes the accordionist acquitted himself honourably as an actor: ‘he can act: he’s an obvious natural, at ease with the camera. Dig: atrocious lines get upgraded to mediocre every time he opens his mouth.’ Bove also dismissed the film as a turkey but praised Contino’s performance ‘Although he did the best he could, Dick was unable to overcome the ‘B’ quality scripts and amateurish production values that hounded each project.’ I’ve never seen the entire film, but there are several scenes available on YouTube and I’d agree with Ellroy and Bove that Contino brings some gravitas to the role:
After watching Daddy-O as a child, Ellroy did not consciously think of Contino again for decades until ‘Fate intervened, via photograph and video cassette.’ The photograph was a picture of Ellroy as a boy, taken on the day he discovered his mother had been murdered. A friend of Ellroy’s dug up the photo and it formed part of a confluence of events that persuaded Ellroy to begin a re-investigation of his mother’s murder which he detailed in his memoir My Dark Places (1996). Ellroy claimed that staring at the photo of himself as a boy sparked a memory of his viewing of Daddy-O. Eventually, the ‘video cassette’ became just as significant to his literary plans as the photograph: after re-watching Daddy-O, Ellroy met with Contino in Las Vegas. They sparked an instant rapport, and Ellroy was surprised to learn of some of the hardships Contino had faced due to the misconceptions built around his Korean War service. Ellroy’s conversations with Contino would form the genesis of his next work of fiction: ‘Dick Contino’s Blues was blasting its way into my consciousness. It seemed to be coming from somewhere far outside my volition.’ Ellroy asked Contino if he could make him the eponymous star of the novella, telling him it would be about “Fear, courage and heavily compromised redemptions.” In the event, Dick Contino’s Blues marked a shift in Ellroy’s writing away from a sparse noir style to a more outlandish, cartoon-like prose which he has, thankfully, limited to his short stories and novellas, and not experimented with in the novels. However, the onset of memories which began with re-watching Daddy-O did not just inspire Ellroy’s future literary plans, it led him to reassess his past work:
In 1990 I wrote White Jazz. A major sub-plot features a grade z movie being filmed on the same Griffith Park locales as Daddy-O.
Jung wrote: “What is not brought to consciousness comes to us as fate.”
I should have seen Dick Contino coming a long time ago.
It is in the novels of the LA Quartet and Underworld USA trilogy where you can best find Ellroy’s expression of the ‘heavily compromised redemption’ that Contino experienced in real life. As Ellroy is now writing the second volume of his new LA Quartet, Dick Contino will continue to inspire him, however allusively.
I first came across the term ‘Ellrovian‘ at the James Ellroy archive at the Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina. Ellroy himself used it in the outline to an Underworld USA novel. My PhD supervisor cautioned me against using the term, however. His concern was that such terms, like ‘Pythonesque‘ or ‘Pinteresque‘ or even ‘noir’ itself for that matter, become saturated and meaningless. I agree with that, but I think it’s partly a consequence of certain writing or genre styles becoming a pop culture phenomenon. Ellroy has become a very influential author, and the stylistic traits of his work can be found in the fiction of a younger generation of novelists, two of whom, Megan Abbott and David Peace, I’m going to discuss in this post. To call Abbott and Peace’s work Ellrovian is rather limiting. I don’t deny they’re brilliantly original talents in their own right, but I think it’s fair to say there is an Ellroy influence that is worth investigating, especially as, in many regards, they are very different writers.
Megan Abbott’s novels Die a Little (2005), The Song is You (2007), Queenpin (2007) and Bury Me Deep (2009) are renowned for taking a retrospective look at the classic noir era and giving a female perspective to a femme fatale role too often defined (and arguably created) by male authors. Her recent novels The End of Everything (2011) and Dare Me (2012) have moved away from a distinctly noir setting and explored different themes, but her early work displayed an Ellroy influence. Abbott mentions Ellroy’s work briefly in her study of the genre The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled fiction and Film Noir (2002), and she wrote a tribute to the author for The Rap Sheet. In an interview with Rebecca Godfrey, Abbott describes her first two novels as ‘lovesongs’ to Ellroy.
The Song is You in particular feels Ellrovian. The novels concerns the true-life disappearance of Hollywood starlet Jean Spangler in 1949. Hollywood publicist Gil “Hop” Hopkins becomes obsessed with the woman the press dubs ‘the Daughter of the Dahlia’ and launches a private investigation. Like many people passing through the movie industry, Hop is cynical, compromised and world weary:
When someone needed to pick up the big-shot buccaneer at the drunk tank and slip some green to the blue, he sent Mike or Freddy or reliable old Bix. They kicked needles down sewer grates, slipped suicide notes into pockets, gave screen tests to hustlers quid pro quo. Hop had it taken care of. He had it fixed. Mr. Blue Sky. All from his chrome and mahogany office, cool and magisterial and pumped full of his own surging blood.
The Spangler case awakens a deeper moral side to Hop which subtly and surprisingly emerges when he comes across song and dance duo Marv Sutton and Gene Merrel whom he believes are connected to the disappearance. Behind the Hollywood glamour, Sutton and Merrel’s repugnant attitudes towards women makes them too much too bear even for a hardened pro like Hop. The different facets of Hop’s personality remind me of Ellroy characters such as the homosexual fixer Lenny Sands and the motormouth journalist Danny Getchell. The novel ends with Hop meeting with perhaps his most desperate client: the doomed actress Barbara Payton. He knows he can do nothing for her, but she catches him in ‘rare sentimental mood’, and with these two tragic characters, Abbott merges the factual and fictional in her take on Hollywood lore. Through The Song is You and other novels, Megan Abbott’s revisionism of the classic femme fatale has been every bit as groundbreaking as Ellroy’s fictional history of 1940s and 50s Los Angeles in the LA Quartet, and between the two of them they have completely reinvented the noir genre as we know it.
David Peace’s writing career has some fascinating parallels and divergences with Ellroy’s. Peace’s debut novel, 1974, was the beginning of his Red Riding Quartet, a body of work heavily influenced by Ellroy’s Los Angeles Quartet. Oddly enough, when Ellroy began the LA Quartet with The Black Dahlia it was already his seventh novel and the first major success of his career. Ellroy’s first six novels, although they still read well today, were not major successes. Peace was able to develop Ellroy’s style right from the start of his first novel and give it his own unique touch. But just as Peace has replicated Ellroy’s success, he also seems to have experienced the same failures. Many critics felt that Ellroy’s trademark clipped prose style had become too lean and reductionist with The Cold Six Thousand (2001). Peace developed his own prose style in a similarly honed and sparse fashion with Red or Dead (2013) and met exactly the same lukewarm critical response. One of the most interesting parallels between Ellroy and Peace is how a similar portrayal of institutional corruption can lead to differing political outlooks. Ellroy is a self-styled Tory who believes that a corrupt system can evolve for the better through gradual reform, whereas Peace is an anti-Establishment socialist who would rebuild the system root and branch. I was at first sceptical that Peace’s work could successfully transpose Ellroy’s noir portrayal of political corruption and horrific Underworld violence in 1940s and 50s LA onto a 1970s Yorkshire setting. My feeling was that the British historical setting had less capacity for intrigue and violence, but Peace skilfully weaves together references of IRA violence, payoffs between construction companies and government officials, and even the Elton John and David Bowie singles that rocketed up the charts until you are won over by his subversive portrayal of 1970s Britain. If you’re new to Peace’s writing, start at the beginning of the Yorkshire Quartet with 1974, the year in which the Troubles were at their height and two inconclusive general elections left the country in a power vacuum (remind you of anything?). One character’s bigoted rant captures the essence of Peace’s portrayal of a country in terminal decline:
‘This country’s at war, Mr Dunford. The government and the unions, the Left and the Right, the rich and the poor. Then you got your Paddy’s, your wogs, your niggers, the puffs and the perverts, even the bloody women; they’re all out for what they can get. Soon there’ll be nowt left for the working white man.’
In the novel, put-upon crime reporter Edward Durford becomes an unlikely crusader-hero when he investigates a series of brutal murders of young girls. Ellroy fans will note that in 1974 the grisly detail of the swan wings being stitched onto the back of the ten year old murder victim Clare Kempley is almost certainly a reference to the murder of child star Wee Willie Wennerholm in L.A. Confidential (1990) who has bird feathers stitched into the back of his corpse. Be warned: the violence in 1974 is graphic, and I once saw David Peace at an event in Belfast express some regret at how lurid the story is. Peace has improved immeasurably as a writer since his debut novel, and his subsequent portrayals of violence have been toned down. Still, since the publication of 1974 the revelations that have come out about the Hillsborough disaster and Jimmy Savile have been more horrific than anything that could been rendered in fiction. As more disturbing details about the UK’s history come to light, perhaps the ingrained corruption and ultra-violence in Ellroy and Peace’s writing will not seem so hyperbolic after all.
I’ve just finished reading Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), Peter Biskind’s epic history of how the moviebrat generation of directors, who wrestled control from the old-school studio producers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, changed Hollywood forever. Although Biskind gives a rather acerbic portrayal of the dysfunctional personalities and out of control egos that comprised the New Hollywood set — Peter Bogdanovich, George Lucas, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman etc. — the quality of their movies remains unsurpassed. Audiences had never seen films as daring or unconventional as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Exorcist (1973) and Mean Streets (1973). Alas, when you look at the British film industry during the 1970s, the story seems rather desperate in comparison. British cinema thrived after the war. Government subsidies were available to filmmakers, and this attracted some of the best talent from abroad. War films, Costume and Kitchen Sink dramas were popular. By the seventies, however, the money was beginning to dry up as Britain lurched from one economic crisis to another. In the decade of power strikes, the three-day week and Winter of Discontent, the film industry suffered as much as any other industry. There were compensations, for instance the parlous state of the film industry forced some of the best creative talent to concentrate on TV which led to a Golden Age of television drama in Britain. But although the number of British films declined, and some output became notorious (such as the lamentable sex comedies that were churned out by the dozen), there were still some distinguished British films produced in this period. In contrast to the developments in Hollywood, the creativity and narrative vision of the best British films of the seventies owed a lot to a small number of producers, specifically Michael Klinger and Euan Lloyd, who had the drive and determination for films like Get Carter (1971), Gold (1974), Shout at the Devil (1976) and The Sea Wolves (1980) to be made against the odds.
Get Carter begins with eponymous gangster (played by Michael Caine) staring out of the window of the home of the London mob bosses, Sid and Gerald Fletcher, who are happily watching porn slides in the living room. Carter is planning to travel to Newcastle to investigate the suspicious death of his brother Frank. The London Underworld doesn’t want him to go in case he disturbs their business interests in the city, but Carter is resolute, and his fearlessness is demonstrated by the fact that he is having an affair with Gerald’s wife. As soon as Carter arrives in Newcastle, he begins to agitate corrupt businessman Cliff Brumby and local crime lord Cyril Kinnear, both of whom he suspects were involved with Frank’s death, while constantly giving the slip to two London gangsters tasked with sending him home. The plot at first seems to be simply a revenge story, but it develops into a gripping and complex portrayal of the links between organised crime and business in Britain at the time. Aside from the plotting, this is also one of the most brilliantly atmospheric British films ever made. You can almost smell the stench from the back garden latrines. Every cafe, bookmakers and pub seems rundown and dispiriting. Wallpaper is yellowed and rotting from the endless plumes of cigarette smoke, and rain batters down relentlessly on the cobbled streets.
Steve Chibnall’s book on Get Carter for the British Film Guide is a brilliant account of the making of the film. Michael Klinger had long wanted to make a gangster film and simply browsed through the galley copies of soon to be published novels and discovered Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis. Klinger was a larger than life character whose business interests did not necessarily suggest he would go on to produce critically acclaimed films:
The man who would bring Jack’s Return Home to the screen, independent producer Michael Klinger, was a unique figure in the British film industry. He was a showman able to bridge the sizable gap between commercial sexploitation and a cinema of genuine artistic experimentation. The son of a Polish tailor, Klinger was born in Soho in 1920 and thoroughly imbibed its ethos of rule-breaking and shrewd deal-making. He started out as a disc jockey, but by the late 1950s he was cashing in on the Soho striptease boom by managing the Nell Gwynne club. The club’s performers supplied much of the subject matter for the epidemic of 8mm ‘glamour’ films that began to be produced for the home-viewing market at the time, and would later feature in the plot of Get Carter. It was at the Nell Gwynne that Klinger met Tony Tenser, then head of publicity for Miracle Films, a UK distributor for racy continental pictures. In 1960 they went into partnership and opened the Compton Cinema Club to show uncertified movies to a ‘sophisticated’ membership.
Despite producing some of the best British films of the 70s, Klinger maintained his interest in soft-porn and produced the appalling Confessions series of sex comedies purely because they could be made cheaply and turn a quick profit. Given his background, it is perhaps surprising that Get Carter has a extremely negative view of the deadening, dehumanising effect pornography has on the characters. Although the film is violent from beginning, when Carter sees a blue film featuring his niece (who may actually be his daughter) it starts a chain-reaction of murders which leads the film to its bloody climax. One of the most memorable characters is Glenda played by Geraldine Moffat (pictured), a gangster’s moll with an absolute addiction to hedonism and no apparent sense of morality. Moffat plays Glenda as a booze-addled Dolly Bird living in the wrong decade. All of the carefree joy and optimism of the swinging sixties seems to have evaporated, and all that remains is its sleazy legacy. This is embodied in the inspired casting of playwright John Osborne as Cyril Kinnear. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) had made him the original ‘Angry Young Man’ in the late 1950s, but by this stage Osborne was politically leaning towards Tory Anarchism, and he plays Kinnear as a sleazy but cultured middle-aged man who has narrowly missed his chance to become a member of polite society and seems resigned to being a gangster. Even in its title ‘Get Carter’ is intriguing; both the London and Newcastle Firms are out to ‘Get’ Carter, but surely the main focus of the film is Carter’s investigation and determination to ‘Get’ revenge for his brother’s death? However, as Chibnall details in his book, it took critics and audiences a long time to get Get Carter. The film was neither a critical nor commercial success upon its first release. It wasn’t until over twenty years later that VHS releases and late night television showings brought it to a larger audience, and now it regularly appears on lists of the greatest British films ever made.
At the time, Get Carter’s relative lack of success was not discouraging to Klinger. The Michael Klinger Papers are a wonderful online resource which gives you a glimpse into the mind of this extraordinary man. Brash, somewhat crude, with a good head for business and not afraid to take a gamble, Klinger had some of the best qualities of a film producer. When Verity Lambert turned down a role in a proposed film ‘The Chilean Club’, apparently after not liking the script, Klinger replied, ‘I’m sorry you found it disappointing. Katherine Hepburn thought it was the funniest script she had ever read.’ One of his next big projects after Get Carter was the mining thriller Gold. Based on a Wilbur Smith novel Gold tells the story of Rod Slater (Roger Moore), a General Manager of a South African mining firm who is persuaded, against his better judgment, to drill for gold at a depth in the mine which puts it at high-risk of flooding. Slater is having an affair with his bosses’ wife (played by Susannah York). Her husband (Bradford Dillman) uses the affair to his advantage and arranges for the mine to be deliberately flooded while Slater is away on a romantic weekend. Dillman is part of a crime syndicate which plans to destroy the mine and kill all the miners trapped inside to manipulate the market and exponentially increase the value of their shares in other mines. From the moment Gold opens with its brassy title song by Elmer Bernstein and Don Black you know you’re in for a colourful seventies thriller. Klinger was able to put together a very talented team for the production. In addition to a terrific cast, which includes John Gielgud as the enigmatic head of the crime syndicate, Klinger hired Peter Hunt to direct. Hunt had edited the first five James Bond films and did much to set the exciting fast-paced style of the films which has been much emulated by action films since. In the days when directors had less influence over the final cut, Hunt had tremendous power as editor. When editing You Only Live Twice (1967) Hunt was so unimpressed by Donald Pleasance’s camp Blofeld that he skilfully edited around the performance so the audience never saw Pleasance’s ‘mincing stride’. Hunt’s directorial debut On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) was not a tremendous success on first release (although it’s now considered one of the best Bond films), and Gold was his first film in five years. His skill as an editor had stayed with him. Some of the best scenes in Gold involve cutting between the germophobic Dillman awkwardly sleeping with his wife while the suave Slater brings one of his many girlfriends back to his apartment. It may not be subtle, but it’s effective. Another memorable scene cuts between the flooding of the mine and the chaos that ensues with the serenity of a bowling green where the mine owners are enjoying the privileges of their life, blissfully unaware that their mines are flooding and workers are drowning.
I don’t know how well Gold did at the box office, but it was enough of a success (Moore complains in his memoir that he was cheated out his promised slice of the profits) for Klinger to green-light another film based on a Wilbur Smith project. For Shout at the Devil, Klinger brought Moore back for the lead role and Hunt is once again on directing duties. But Shout at the Devil is a much more ambitious epic action-adventure film than Gold with shades of The African Queen (1951) in its plotting, and when viewed today it looks like a forerunner to the Indiana Jones films. Set in Zanzibar and German East Africa on the brink of the Great War, Moore stars as Sebastian Oldsmith, a devilish rogue who is travelling through Africa en route to Australia (apparently because his family want him out of the way). Oldsmith captures the attention of Colonel Flynn O’Flynn (Lee Marvin) who arranges for all of Oldsmith’s money to be stolen, leaving the dapper Englishman penniless and stranded in Zanzibar. Oldsmith, unaware that Flynn is behind the theft of his funds, agrees to poach elephants in German territory with the hard-drinking American, incurring the wrath of the German Commander Fleischer (Reinhard Kolldehoff) in the process. The first half of Shout at the Devil follow a series of episodic and comic adventures as Oldsmith and Flynn try to outwit Fleischer, leading to one of the most anachronistic but funny scenes I have seen in modern cinema wherein Oldsmith poses as a German tax collector and visits an African village in the hope of collecting taxes before Fleischer does. Sure enough, Fleischer arrives while Oldsmith is bartering with the villagers and all hell breaks loose. One of the best scenes of the film comes when Oldsmith asks Flynn for his daughter Rosa’s hand in marriage. An enraged Flynn discovers that the marriage is inevitable as Rosa is with child and a fist fight ensues:
Shout at the Devil becomes an altogether darker film after war is declared and Fleischer murders Oldsmith and Rosa’s baby daughter. Hellbent on revenge, Oldsmith and Flynn are hired by the Royal Navy to plant a bomb on a German warship in which Fleischer is currently stationed. The warship barges through this film, destroying everything in its path much like the portly Fleischer himself, who is so cheerfully and relentlessly evil that you can’t help but like him. According to the Klinger papers Shout at the Devil was the most expensive film made in 1976. With a budget of $9,000,000, a staggering amount for an independent British film at the time, you can see the quality of the production on the screen. There are biplanes, dreadnoughts and any number of action scenes which makes the film both a thrilling adventure and stronger than average story with the ending loosely inspired by the sinking of SMS Konigsberg in 1905.
The film which I believe closed this cycle of British films was The Sea Wolves released in 1980. Produced by Euan Lloyd, The Sea Wolves is a true story adapted from one of the most unusual episodes of the Second World War and features an all-star cast including Roger Moore (yes, him again!), Gregory Peck, Trevor Howard and David Niven. Lloyd did not share Klinger’s interest in soft-porn, but he had that similar temperament which makes for a great film producer as his BFI biography states:
A brazen, against-the-odds ambition, an old-fashioned – some would say reactionary – world view, aged stars and a journeyman crew of familiar names who returned with each production: these are the characteristics of a ‘Euan Lloyd Production’. Lloyd stood alone within the depressed British film industry of the late 1970s and early 80s as a producer with the self-belief, charisma and bluff to mount large-scale independent action-adventure films.
In the film, Allied forces are sustaining heavy losses in merchant shipping from U-Boat attacks in the Indian Ocean. British Intelligence discovers that a radio transmitter located on board a German merchant ship docked in Goa is passing information to the U-Boats. As Goa is governed by neutral Portugal two SOE agents (Moore and Peck) devise a rather unconventional plan, Operation Creek, to knock out the German communications. They enlist the aging soldiers of the Calcutta Light Horse Brigade (headed by Niven) to lead a clandestine attack on the German ship while the bulk of the crew are being entertained onshore in a party organised by Moore. Operation Creek had only been declassified two years prior to the making of the film, and it was detailed in James Leasor’s book Boarding Party. Although the film has an unusual plot for a covert operation and plenty of comic moments, as the elderly and overweight members of the Light Horse Brigade whip themselves into shape for one last mission, it still feels distinctly old-fashioned. In the year that Raging Bull wowed critics and audiences, The Sea Wolves with its James Bond- like title sequence, Matt Monro song ‘The Precious Moments’ and stiff upper lip attitude would have been a hit twenty years earlier but sadly failed to make much impact on its initial release. Despite this, it remains an interesting and engaging film with superb performances from its stars, who seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and a host of recognisable character actors, Kenneth Griffith, Patrick Allan, Jack Watson, many of whom had appeared in Lloyd’s hit film The Wild Geese released two years earlier. Watching The Sea Wolves feels like the end of an era for British film, and although some of the films produced during this period were not as distinguished as the most acclaimed American films of the seventies they were still hugely enjoyable and engaging, certainly better than most action films churned out today, and we owe a debt to the producers who defied the odds to get them made.
Both Klinger and Lloyd’s producing careers began to wind down by the early 1980s. At the 1982 Academy Awards, Colin Welland famously declared ‘The British are coming!’ when accepting his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Chariots of Fire. Alas, no significant revival of the British film industry followed Welland’s heavily mocked prediction. In the 1990s a mixture of Cool Britannia, National Lottery funding and the arrival of new talent like Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor seemed to herald a new resurgence of British films, but even then, the revival seemed tentative with the film industry not being able to match the quality or quantity of our post-war peak. As for the 1970s, Britain could never have matched the creativity of the moviebrat generation in Hollywood. Still, it’s time we acknowledged creative producers like Michael Klinger and Euan Lloyd, star actors Michael Caine and Roger Moore, directors such as Mike Hodges and Peter Hunt and a host of ubiquitous character actors whose presence seems as constant as family. These guys kept the British film industry alive and produced some damn fine work which doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.
Well done chaps.