Friday, April 22, 2011

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Screenwriters (1968)

The English screenwriting team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have been writing for six decades, which is an incredible accomplishment in an industry where ageism is a dirty little secret. They helped define the English cinema of the sixties with their ingenious script for Michael Winner’s The Jokers, about two brothers (Oliver Reed and a pre-Phantom of the Opera—and very skinny—Michael Crawford) who hatch an audacious plot to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. During this period, they also wrote Winner’s Hannibal Brooks (1969), which featured the unusual pairing of Oliver Reed and Michael J. Pollard, plus an elephant, and Michael Tuchner’s Villain (1971), a crime melodrama starring Richard Burton as a homosexual gangster based on the real life Ronnie Kray.

The dynamic duo went on to create the TV series, Porridge (1974), about life in an English prison, which was Americanized as the Jose Perez TV vehicle, On the Rocks (1975). As the years followed, Clement and La Frenais moved seamlessly between TV and the movies, adapting Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy books as a TV series, as well as creating a TV version of Jonathan Coe’s wonderful seventies coming of age novel, The Rotters’ Club. For the movies, they wrote scripts for Alan Parker’s The Commitments (1991), based on the Roddy Doyle novel, Brian Gibson’s Still Crazy (1995), featuring a hilarious Bill Nighy as a burnt-out rocker (and predating a similar role he played in Love Actually), and Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2006). The first two movies are about the music business, and the third is a movie about the sixties, refracted through the music of the Beatles.

They also wrote Danny Cannon’s Goal! The Dream Begins (2005), based on the true story of a teenager from the L.A. barrio who became a football star for Manchester United, and Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job (2008), an old school crime movie starring Jason Statham. And they are still going strong today; their latest film, Killing Bono, will be released in 2011.

In 1968, Dick Clement directed his only feature film, Otley, which he and Ian La Frenais adapted from the comic spy novel by Martin Waddell. It starred Tom Courtenay as an innocent man who becomes caught in the machinations of two different spy organizations, one working for the British government, the other not. Otley is an antiques dealer, kicked out of his apartment by his landlady and in search of a place to crash. He is not above lifting the occasional piece of bric-a-brac, which is what gets him in trouble in the first place, after he pockets a cigarette lighter in the shape of a wooden shoe that turns out to be the movie’s McGuffin. Otley is the forerunner of the equally disreputable Lovejoy, played to a fare-the-well by Ian McShane in the TV series.

On the run for a murder he didn’t commit, Otley finds himself alternately helped and hindered by an eccentric cast of characters, including Alan Badel as the head of a British spy organization (using the silken menace he employed so well in Stanley Donen’s Arabesque), Freddie Jones as a fey freelance intelligence operative, improbable hitman Leonard Rossiter (playing off of Courtenay’s insouciant charm as memorably as he did as the funeral director in John Schlessinger’s Billy Liar), and Romy Schneider, who is first Otley’s enemy, then his lover. In this movie, as in all her other non-French movies (Good Neighbor Sam, The Cardinal), Ms. Schneider seems to exhibit a slightly diffident air as though barely deigning to appear in a commercial motion picture; but here it works to her advantage.

Otley, as stated before, is played by the great Tom Courtenay, coming off an incredible run in Tony Richardson’s adaptation of the Alan Sillitoe novella, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar (1964), Bryan Forbes‘ adaptation of the James Clavell novel, King Rat (1965) and David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1966). As respectively, a borstal boy fighting the system, a young man with an incredibly rich fantasy life, a provost obsessed with upholding military law and busting a blackmarketeer in a Japanese P.O.W. camp, and a gentle Russian student turned revolutionary general, Courtenay brings a passionate conviction to all these roles, especially the wrong-headed Billy, for whom he takes special care never to allow his character to appear too pathetic. In his review of Otley, Vincent Canby accused Courtenay of slumming his way through a movie that was not good enough for him. But Courtenay seems to be having a ball playing this slightly disreputable character. He is even asked to spend a portion of the movie with only one half of his face shaved, one of several delightful sight gags this movie traffics in.

In truth, Clement is not nearly as good a director as he is a writer. His camera placement is a bit uncertain. And his attempt at creating some Richard Lester-type slapstick comedy fails miserably. But he deftly employs Stanley Myers’ sprightly score to enhance the movie’s antic moods, especially in the title sequence, a long single take of Tom Courtenay walking down Portobello Road to the accompaniment of the song, Homeless Bones,” performed by busker Don Partridge.

In the end, what Clement does very well is chart the decline of the spy hero, which began in 1963 with Sean Connery's glamorous incarnation of James Bond in Doctor No. The next iteration of the spy hero was Richard Burton, playing the shabby burnt-out case Alec Lemas in Martin Ritt’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1965). At the same time, Len Deighton's Harry Palmer, as incarnated by cockney Michael Caine in Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File (1965), Guy Hamilton's Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Ken Russell's Billion Dollar Brain (1968--and yes, that Ken Russell!), was a working class spy who spent as much time warring with his upper class bosses, saturnine Nigel Greene and dolorous Guy Dolman as he did the enemy (usually Oscar Homolka as the avuncular Russian KGB agent, Colonel Stock). We finally end up with Otley, about which there is nothing even remotely heroic or glamorous. The Spy who Came in from the Cold is corrosively cynical, whereas Otley the movie is merely cheerfully cynical.

As writers, Clement and Le Frenais provide an excellent take on the balkanizing of British intelligence into competing groups of spy agencies, and the Machiavellian manipulation of freelance spy organizations. In the end, Otley doesn’t save the day, expose the villain or get the girl. But he does find a place to rest his weary head. A modest goal from a writing team that has modestly, year after year, decade after decade, plied its lonely trade in unheralded fashion, but still definitely participants in the long distance run.

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