Tag Archives: Noel Coward

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 361 – The Italian Job (1969)

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The Italian Job is a classic British caper familiar to everyone who’s grown up in the UK, so often has it been shown on telly and so embedded in British culture is the iconography of the red, white and blue Minis, the chase through Turin, only being supposed to blow the bloody doors off, and of course, the cliffhanger. Even those who, like Mike, have never watched it from beginning to end, know and love it as an unimpeachable icon of British cinema.

Which may be curious, considering Mike’s dislike of a UK that has left the EU in a storm of angry little Englanderism and British exceptionalism, as that reliving-the-war, one-in-the-eye-for-the-Europeans attitude can be read throughout The Italian Job – but, José argues, it’s a film that conveys affection for the continent, too, in its globetrotting nature and the beautiful scenery it shows off; and after all, its release came just a few years before the UK joined the EEC, which would later become the EU, in 1973. So it’s not quite that simple.

The Italian Job‘s notion of national identity is also conveyed through class, which is clearly delineated here, particularly through its use of Michael Caine and Noël Coward, who each connote specific strata of the class system. Importantly, this is no tale of class warfare – everyone’s in it together for Queen and country, and the gold heist that everything’s leading towards is explicitly given a national purpose. All that gold isn’t being stolen just for fun: who it’s being stolen from and for are key.

While our heads swirl with all these issues and more – including whether the chase is a good as all that, and the sexism of the comedy delivered by Benny Hill’s character – we have a grand old time at The Electric seeing The Italian Job. It falls short of cinematic greatness, but it’s jolly good fun, and those iconic images and sequences, which might only have existed in your mind’s eye for years since you last chanced upon the film on TV, don’t disappoint when you see them once again.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Young Man From the Provinces, A Gay Life Before Stonewall, by Alan Helms, Faber & Faber, 1995

I read YOUNG MAN FROM THE PROVINCES: A GAY LIFE BEFORE STONEWALL mainly because Alan Helms is one of the people photographed in David Leddick’s NAKED MEN TOO, and I thought he might have something to say about the George Platt Lynes circle. I was wrong about this. He only arrived in New York after Platt Lynes died in 55, and ,as we’ll see, the circles Helms moved in were even more moneyed and famous, if also a bit sleazier. The other reason is because I am interested in the lives gays and lesbians made for themselves between World War II and Stonewall. This is a very particular account. As he writes, ‘It would be wrong to think of this book as a chapter of social and cultural history; it’s more like a memoir containing some of the social and cultural history others might have written if they hadn’t died of AIDS’.

Helms arrived in New York from Indianapolis to go study at Columbia, thinking he was the only one of his kind, still doing things others grew out of. This was confirmed by his first lover, a pre-med student he lived with for a couple of years who left him to get married. Bereft and suicidal, his sexuality already under investigation, monitored and recorded by the authorities in ways that would later deprive him of scholarships, dropped by his closest friend, the only person he dared come out to … an acquaintance invites him to a party…and the whole world of queer Camelot New York opens up to him.

Everything takes place behind closed doors, in secret, at private parties or downstairs clubs that nonetheless get regularly raided. He’s of Anglo- German descent, fits the ideal of male beauty of the period, and he’s been swimming and doing weights since high school. He’s told that with a tiny operation on his nose, he could model. Luckily, a plastic surgeon is mad about him and Helms lets him blow him in exchange for the operation, setting a pattern. Soon Helms is a leading male model of the day, photographed by Scavullo, on the cover of GQ, even on Broadway with Elaine Stritch in Noel Coward’s SAIL AWAY.

He describes himself as the golden boyman of the period, a star of the gay world, the one everyone wanted to be with. And many of the rich and famous lookers of the day were: Larry Kert, Stephen Sondheim, Rock Hudson, Anthony Perkins, Nureyev, Tab Hunter. For a while he lived in an apartment under that of Coward, who offered tea and sympathy at the various disasters that were his love life; he became close friends with Luchino Visconti, one of the people the book is dedicated to.

Even for an autobiography, I don’t think I’ve read a book that’s as self-involved as this one. Helms is resolved to be desired and popular, it’s his main goal in life, so he recounts his routine before going out, the gym, running, the hair, the dressing. Who he was with, how he was looked at, this was of main importance to him. His excuse is that his self-worth was based entirely on his looks. He treated people very badly, making various overlapping dates, going to the best one and standing up all the rest, including his mother at an opening night on Broadway: she wasn’t chic enough to take to the party. He’s entirely self-critical of it all, which somehow doesn’t compensate

Helms speak of his beauty and the social and financial passports it afforded him in a way that seems matter-of-fact rather than conceited: ‘A typical week of my life in New York had included a conversation with Katharine Hepburn at Scribner’s on Fifth Avenue (about Elizabethan biography; she knew lots), an evening at the Blue Angel to hear a new young singer named Barbra Streisand, and a small party for King Hussein of Jordan’. In the meantime, Henry Wilson, the notorious agent of Rock Hudson, Robert Wagner and other stars of the period, is eyeing him up for a ‘screen test’; and Leonard Bernstein is gagging to get into his pants.

Part of the problem with the book is that the level of self-involvement makes Katharine Hepburn’s ME seem modest. So it’s all about his place, his feeling, his doings. There’s little attempt to explore other people’s desires or motives, or even to describe them in that period. Thus, all the celebrities in his life come across as a sketch; even the main people in his life seem distanced and shadowy. There are areas that remain under-explored: why do so many of his friends in that period and in that milieu commit suicide before 30? And perhaps not unrelated, there are seedier aspects that are mentioned but not explored: is there no downside to being a kept boy for fifteen years, however jet-setty the style; what drove him to accept money to sleep with trade for a voyeur, was it only the 100 dollars?; what drove him to steal 300 dollars from Luchino Visconti?

That this remains under-explored becomes surprising as the first chapters of the book, dealing with what it’s like to grow up in small town Indianapolis with two alcoholic parents is excellent. And the last part of the book, dealing with coping with the real social, sexual and financial effects of the loss of his looks is self-lacerating, if very American: all the self-help books, the discussion groups, the therapy.

But it’s all about the self or rather himself. Thus Stonewall happens but his mind is on whether he can still get the top guys at a Pines party, top here basically referring to whomever is the current GQ coverboy. The social changes from Eisenhower to Vietnam are traced mostly through the places he goes to, chic secret parties, then the Everhard Baths and Bette Midler, then exiled to Boston and an academic career.

It’s a very well-written book. Helms went on to become a professor of Literature. And it covers many areas I’m interested in, not least what a beauty feels like upon the loss of his/her looks. But this is a me, me, me book about exploiting one’s looks for 15 years and then mourning their loss for another forty that feels narrow in outlook, over-invested in nostalgia for a particular world, and lacking even the personalised account of social and cultural history circumscribed in the beginning. Thus, a well-written book but one devoid of context, insight, motive; and a bit dull for that, despite all the glittery names that dot its pages.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies 67 – 2001: A Space Odyssey


A classic returns to cinemas for its 50th anniversary and we receive it in rather a muted fashion. José’s never seen it on the big screen and Mike’s never seen it at all, so it’s an interesting experience for both, but both come away with reservations.

Much of the discussion revolves around context. 2001: A Space Odyssey was first released in 1968 and our repeated use of the phrase “of its time” becomes a coded criticism as much as an honest descriptor – the film simply doesn’t work today as well, or in the same ways, as it did half a century ago. We discuss its editing, novelty value, depiction of the future and technology and more, perhaps unfortunately but probably unavoidably never being able to escape the historical lens. It’s true to say that we’re both very glad we took the opportunity to see it, but both left feeling that while its influence is even more tangible than one could imagine and its legacy is not in question, its greatness is today a touch overstated.


The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.


José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, Adapted and Directed by Emma Rice


One feels one is in a 1930s Kardomah before the play even begins. There’s a small orchestra —  bass, ukelele, accordion, various vocalists — singing to the audience at the bar, and they then serenade us all into the theatre. The brilliantly pink curtain, shining in luxuriant folds, rises, and we see the British Board of Film Censors card which prefaced every movie and which here  announces the start of the show. Laura (Isabel Pollen) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon), who’ve been sitting at a table in front of the stage, run onto it.  Laura’s husband, shown on a screen, beckons to her, and she seems to teleport from stage to film.


The film, part of the cultural history of several generations, both iconographically and in terms of sensibility, is both backdrop and a shared knowledge the play builds on. The show kids the movie, just like Victoria Wood’s famous sketch did, but with equal fondness. That shared memory, and that shared love for it, is the very structure of feeling the play draws on and develops, both in the way it is constructed and the way individual performances move from light and slightly farcical (most of the supporting characters) and those that are deeply felt and played straight (the lovers).

The audience is serenaded into the theatre

What we see onstage is necessarily very different from the film. The film makes us cry at the impossibility of this love, at all the social restrictions, from the institution of matrimony to the censure of neighbours, to the weight of the state itself, as seen when Laura goes to sit in the park bench, by the War Memorial in the movie.

The show brings puppetry, circus, a band, acrobatics, songs  –‘Mad About the Boy and ‘A Room with View’ by Coward but many others as well — and brilliantly evocative and poetic use of images; sometimes used as a backdrop to evoke mood; sometimes front of stage to show passing trains; once, wittily, to permit Alec to enter the train.


The actors sing to us in a world of images we know and love. In a world of sounds that are a backdrop to English culture. But what does the show do with them? It in no way replaces the power of the film. What we get is an entertaining and witty love letter to it, done in a completely different mode. Sights, sounds, and live actors here deployed to evoke nostalgia for norms, cultural forms of understanding, speech patterns, prices for drinks, and narrative tropes that no longer exist but that we recognise, acknowledge as a shared history, and are fond of.

brief encounter
A production that makes imaginative use of many screens and often ‘steps into’ movies

This production of Brief Encounter, from Kneehigh Theatre and the Birmingham Rep, was first produced in Birmingham in 2007.It’s a wonderful, imaginative evening at the theatre. I particularly enjoyed the sound of Jos Slovick’s voice —  lulling and full of feeling —  and Dean Nolan’s many comic turns. But all the actors are brilliant.

It’s all rather enchanting, and the production enchantingly uses our memory of the film but without once evoking the depth of feeling the film surprises every audience I’ve ever seen the film with. And yet it’s not a disappointment. It’s a wonderful something else that uses every trick in the book available in theatre to both send a love letter to the film  that the show still can’t keep itself from slightly sending up. Those states of feeling presented in those ways might no longer be available to us. And maybe it’s a good thing. They were a bit ridiculous. But weren’t they lovely?


Jose Arroyo

A Note on Brief Encounter (David Lean, UK, 1945)

Brief Encounter is woven through and through with loss, sadness, the stifling of desire, the structuration of forces of repression — the state, the police, the institution of marriage: all that is so beautifully expressed in the scene where we see Laura (Celia Johnson) going to have a smoke under the the War Memorial, the park bench still wet from the rain, after her failed attempt at the assignation with Alec (Trevor Howard) that had exercised her so — interpellated as personal lacks and individual moral failings.

It was only on my last viewing that it became clear how the film is actually structured around the moment of loss, a moment which bookends the film, and which we first see narrated objectively and then come back to subjectively at the film’s end (and Catherine Grant’s marvellous video essay, Dissolves of Passion, take on an even richer resonance when seen through the lens of loss, of Dolly Messiter robbing the couple of their last minutes but also the loss of a love that is desired but cannot be).

The film begins to tell us a story, one that doesn’t start of as but then becomes Laura’s story told in flashback, and the end returns us to to the beginning but now fleshed out as Laura subjectively experiences– and by this I mean something different than told through her point of view — those last moments with Alec, the loss, the despair, the world infringing on and robbing her of that which is so important to her but which she cannot speak of, except to us, the audience.

As we can see in the clip above, the film begins with a train, engine steaming streams of smoke, heading towards us and slicing through the frame. We then begin with a medium close-up of Mr. Godby (Stanley Holloway). The camera cuts to passing trains once again, before again picking up Mr. Godby, crossing the track on foot. Why begin here and with Mr. Godby? Clearly the passing trains, the platform where people linger only momentarily before heading elsewhere, the steam; all help create an emotional as well as physical setting for the drama that will be played out. But look also at the formal elegance, at the beauty of the compositions. This dangerous speed, the transient and furtive meetings, the steaming desire the film will dramatise, all will be contained by the same order, hierarchy, symmetry, the elegant manner that also characterise framing and composition (and in a different way, Mr. Godby’s uniform).

I was struck also by how in the shot in the station café, the focus is entirely on Mr. Godby and Mrs. Bagot (Joyce Carey), flirting away, in their own way negotiating and making possible the fulfilment of the desires denied the more middle class Lauras and Alecs. You might note that the camera pans from Mr. Godby and Mrs Bagot to Laura and Alec, that significantly they remain at a distance. We don’t yet know who they are and we don’t yet hear a word they say. Mr. Godby’s voice is still carrying, now off-screeen, now speaking of police, whilst the camera lingers at a distance is on this new couple we will later get to know so well. So from the very first images, we get speed, steam, the sense of transit and indeterminacy but also of order and containment, all whilst being brought to notice regarding forces of repression. And the film tells us this whilst making a homology between two couples characterised as belonging to two different classes, one the servants; the other those being served, even if only in a cafe.

I will write  about the two ways we’re shown Dolly Messiter’s intrusion into the last moments the couple have together –the one objective at the beginning, the other subjectively near the end —  in my next post.

José Arroyo

PS at the end of  Altman (d: Ron Mann, USA, 2014), a wonderful documentary on the filmmaker, his wife Kathryn recounts how how watching Brief Encounter inspired Altman’s filmmaking, ‘one day, years  and years ago, just after the war, Bob had nothing to do and he went to a theatre in the middle of the afternoon to see a movie. Not a Hollywood movie, a British movie.He said the main character wasn’t glamorous, not a babe. And at first he wondered why he was even watching it. But twenty minutes later he was in tears and had fallen in love with her. And it made him feel that it wasn’t just a movie.

PPS: In an article reflecting on Lost in Translation 15 years after, Sofia Coppola writes: ‘“I got married not long before and kind of felt isolated. I was in this stage where I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right choices or what I was doing in the post-college beginning of my adult life,” she says. “Brief Encounter was in my mind while writing but I was looking a lot of the idea of being connected because at that moment, I wasn’t.”




Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1933)

design for living

A Lubitsch film adapted by the great Ben Hetch from the Noel Coward play about his relationship with the legendary Lunts*? The heart speeds, the mouth salivates. Yet, it’s extremely disappointing; indeed almost awful. Coward and Lubitsch are like oil and vinegar or rather two superb vinegars that might have got toxic when mixed by Hetch. The film tell of two artists, playwright Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and painter George Curtis (Gary Cooper), who love the same woman, like each other, and decide to share a flat. Miriam Hopkins is the ‘free spirit’ who makes a condition of their living together that she will critique their work but won’t sleep with either (probably everyone’s idea of hell).

Fredric March was a big star, but on the evidence of his work here, his appeal is lost in the mist of time. Miriam Hopkins is made for Lubitsch. She’s simply wondrous as the elegant crook in Trouble in Paradise and her Princess in The Smiling Lieutenant is a continuing delight (Her transformation from princess to flapper, culminating in her performance of  ‘Jazz Up Your Lingerie’, ciggie in one hand hand, garters visible, and visibly vibrating to post-ragtime jazz,  is priceless). She always exudes a slight harshness but here she doesn’t have enough funny lines to compensate. She seems merely harsh; and not as pretty as Gary Cooper.


Orson Welles said Cooper was so beautiful he practically turned into a girl whenever he saw him; one look at Cooper here and one understands Welles completely – even Miriam eventually succumbs. He does some good double-takes too. But ultimately he’s unbelievable in the Coward role; whenever he’s discussing art you sense he’d really rather be on a horse. The first Lubtisch I’ve not liked. It is a pre-Code film and as daring as  American cinema would get for another thirty years; but not delightful.

*(Alfred and Lynn, considered the great acting couple of their day and so famous they even figure in J.D. Salinger’s The Cather in the Rye, ‘they didn’t act like people, and they didn’t act like actors’)

After several more viewings of this film, I have changed my mind on it and now think this great but would like to keep this here as a response to my first viewing.

José Arroyo