Thursday, 16 September 2010

Green for Alastair

A few years ago my now octogenarian father, having long observed my all consuming interest in films old and new, asked that I seek out a film entitled Green for Danger. This was his most fondly remembered title starring Alastair Sim, a name at the time unfamiliar to me. Although, soon after looking up the film on Amazon, and Sim himself on Imdb, I realized that his was easily the most memorable dramatic turn in Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright - this in a Hitchcock film starring Marlene Dietrich. If I'm not mistaken, they share no screen time together in that title, and I found myself feeling impatient with Dietrich's trademark histrionics. Whether intentional or not, her character's hinting toward the plot's denouement, long before it happens, helped spoil the story for me.

I am very likely to get this story wrong, but my father's special interest in Sim is largely because the then very famous British actor was the rector of Edinburgh University while my father was a student there. At one point he delivered an address to the student body which was notable not only for its clarity, but also for Sim's ability to captivate an audience, holding them spellbound. I'm not sure my father even remembers the speech's content, he certainly doesn't mention it in the telling of the anecdote; its point being the lasting impact an orator can have when he makes proper use of his gift.

We watched Green for Danger together, and despite the Network DVD release which I acquired not having the best AV quality, we were both able to thoroughly enjoy it. On first viewing the film's manner of gently telling a murder mystery struck me as not having a modern day counterpart. The cinema of today has a tendency to alternate between serious depictions of violence which involve blood and guts splattered across a screen as well as not so serious depictions of violence which also involve blood and guts splattered across a screen. Since I first bought and watched this overlooked classic by Sidney Gilliat, it has also been released by the Criterion Collection. I haven't had the privilege of watching the latter version, but judging by the numerous superlative Criterion editions I have watched, it will be the one to best appreciate the nuances of dialogue in the film, especially as enunciated by Sim himself.

In the years that have passed since that first experience of watching one of Sim's films with prior expectations, and my eyes looking out for the man's on-screen presence, I've noticed him as the titular protagonist of Scrooge and the hilarious, corrupt bishop in The Ruling Class. I also went back to Green for Danger which cheered me up on a particularly gloomy day.

Which brings me to the present.

Yesterday I arrived home after several pleasant days in the restorative climate of my parent's home in Central Java. The journey home meant an exhausting six-hour train ride spent solely in the company of my wildly energetic six year-old son. We started out long before the break of dawn, and he only saw fit to grab about ten minutes of sleep during those six hours. As soon as we got home, he demanded that he be allowed to go out to play with the neighbour's children (four days away apparently being enough to make the heart grow much fonder). Their parent's kicked him out after about an hour which usually happens because they are children more prone to restfulness, and unlike young Alexander, are given to taking siestas. So we were left to entertain each other for a few more hours while he behaved in a way that could generously be described as 'lively'. Finally, at about the same time, both he and the sun began to fade, and to deal with my by now thoroughly knackered state, I turned to my own personal comfort food: the vintage comedy.

Among my voluminous supply of unwatched movies, calling out for attention, was The Green Man directed by Robert Day, and of course starring Mr Sim. Five minutes into the film, I was interrupted by a routine telephone call from my father, to inquire after our well-being. I happened to mention to him what I was engaged in, commenting that the film starred a very 'young Alastair Sim'. Therefore, I was surprised to learn from Imdb today that Green Man was actually produced in 1956 - around the middle of Sim's career. Despite the make-up that is inevitably employed, I largely attribute this kind of ability to youth or age one's self to acting.

The film itself could have easily been written off as a skillful, and very enjoyable, attempt to mimic the screwball comedies so popular in Hollywood during the '30s and '40s. My personal favourite being George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story starring Carey Grant, James Stewart and Katherine Hepburn.

However, Green Man visits places that were decidedly foreign to big studio Hollywood. Especially post-'30s when the Hays code began to censor segments of movies which it felt were leading American youth to moral bankruptcy. The plot of Green Man is thoroughly implausible and hardly worth reiterating - a standard feature of the screwball comedy. What sets it apart is its usage of morbidity as a humorous device. Not only does Sim play a terrorist in the film, but a dichotomy exists within the plot, whereby while more heroic leads are introduced later on, it is Sim who opens the proceedings, dominates much of the first half, and continues to receive importance equal to those of the non-villains for the duration. When Sim appears to get his just desserts close to the end, it seems to be a tacked on scene to appease the moralists in the audience. Indeed, this viewer (who has no love for bombings), would have been just as satisfied if the terrorist had been allowed to ride off into the sunset with his bombs, but that may have been a scene too far in 1956.

Based on my experience watching films from the '50s, the allowance of not just a villain, but also a remorseless assassin to have such a prominent, sympathetic role in a film makes Green Man exceptional. It seems unlikely that it would have been possible for such a work to receive financial backing or an enthusiastic public reaction had it not been for the inimitable charm of Alastair Sim. One indelible scene that had me laughing aloud, alone in the dark, was Sim's receipt of a distressing telephone call from his fiance. Despite being a scene of a telephone call, the dialogue was largely irrelevant as I focused my gaze on the assortment of facial tics which Sim managed to produce - with devastating comic timing.  He was most certainly a physical actor, and this was not just relegated to his face, as his lanky frame would come alive in its entirety when a scene demanded it. In today's films I miss physical comedy typical of silent giants such as Keaton and Chaplin. The modern director often has a hard time making it past facial movement, and it is becoming increasingly true that such faces must be beautiful without room left for faces that are just plain interesting. It's difficult to believe that the likes of Humphrey Bogart would be able to become the icon that he continues to be, were he to have started acting somewhere toward the end of the last millennium, never mind Sim's looks which were so readily poised for comic expressions, yet not liable to land him on the cover of a magazine aimed at screaming young girls.  

Looking down Alastair Sim's filmography I find that all of his films which I have yet to watch are titles unfamiliar to me. This is regrettable, as a lack of notoriety generally means a lack of availability when it comes to home video and I am certain that each and every one of the films he did make are worth watching for his performance in them alone.

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