Monday 1 February 2021

Clash by Night (1963)

Director: Montgomery Tully
Writers: Maurice J. Wilson and Montgomery Tully, based on the novel Clash by Night by Rupert Croft-Cooke
Stars: Terence Logsdon, Jennifer Jayne, Harry Fowler, Alan Wheatley and Peter Sallis

Index: 2021 Centennials.

Before you ask, this particular Clash by Night is entirely unrelated to the RKO film noir of the same name from 1952, with Barbara Stanwyck in the lead, and the 1941 Clifford Odets play on which that was based. This Clash by Night is British, made by Eternal Films at MGM’s studios in Borehamwood, on the outskirts of London, and distributed in the UK in 1963 by Grand National Pictures. When Allied Artists brought it to the States a year later, it was wisely renamed to Escape by Night to help avoid confusion. Its original title comes from its source novel, by Rupert Croft-Cooke, published only a year earlier, and the author’s background does a lot to shape our understanding of the script. I’ll come back to explain why later but, for now, I’ll just point out that I’m watching for Peter Sallis, who would have been a hundred years old today. I know him for The Last of the Summer Wine, but you may know him far better for voicing a claymation curmudgeon called Wallace, he with a canine companion named Gromit.

Sallis doesn’t have a large part in Clash by Night, but it’s a quirky and memorable one, as the wildcard in a bevy of unusual jailbirds thrown together into an equally unusual situation. There are half a dozen of them, handcuffed in pairs on a bus that’s about to take them all to prison. Terence Longdon has the the leading role of Martin Lord, sentenced to five years for killing a man, even if he did so in his own house while defending his own wife from sexual assault; she let a stranger in to use the telephone. He’s handcuffed to Doug Roberts, a talkative thief played by Harry Fowler, who’s been handed 21 more months; he’s been through this routine before. Sallis is seated right behind them as we learn all this, but he’s the last to be introduced, because Mawsley, the experienced guard on this bus, builds up to him as he passes key notes on to his assistant, Danny Watts, before they set off. This is Danny’s first transport duty and that makes it easy for Mawsley to let us in on who everyone is and how everything works too.

Everyone’s peaceful because, as Mawsley suggests, “The new boys are too scared to start anything and the old timers know better.” If one does start anything, it’ll likely be Bart Rennison, a nasty sort who looks the part, scowling like Edward G. Robinson. We never find out exactly what he’s done, but it was probably needless and violent. Ironically, he’s handcuffed to Sydney Selwyn, a peaceful man by comparison. We’re left in the dark about his crime too, though it’s hinted at in a way I misinterpreted until researching the author of the source novel. Selwyn is a former mission worker who found religion and, in the words of Mawsley, “carried brotherly love a bit too far”. That leaves a military man, Major Ronald Grey-Simmons, about to serve three years for fraud, and Victor Lush, a halfwit given twenty months for attacking a girl. Mawsley can’t stand people like Selwyn but doesn’t understand why Lush is being sent to prison. “There’s someone who ought not to be here,” he tells Watts, because he doesn’t believe prison will help a halfwit.

It ought to be a quiet trip and a short one too, but we know it won’t be because the prologue showed some villains paying a car-hire driver a cool hundred pounds for doing very little. “Drive a certain vehicle on a certain day in a certain way. That’s all.” And, you’ll be unsurprised to know, he’s the driver of this bus. Sure enough, there’s a diversion sign that’s quickly removed by someone hiding in the bushes. And, down this narrow country road, they’re neatly stopped by a car speeding out of a hidden side road. The villains are springing Rennison, as we kind of expected, but they need some time to get him away, so they park the bus inside a barn on the grounds of an abandoned farm, locking it as they leave. It’s full of hay, so highly combustible anyway, but they’re spraying it down with paraffin, so one attempt to escape and they’ll set it alight. Frankly, that might happen by accident, because it’s 5th November, so the local kids are setting off fireworks to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, just in case it wasn’t tense enough inside the barn already.

What follows is a very British character drama, in which five polite criminals don’t cause trouble for the rookie prison guard left in charge of them, after Mawsley foolishly announces that he recognises Rennison’s outside man and is killed for his observation. An action movie this ain’t, even if Mawsley might disagree: the one truly spectacular moment happens so far offscreen that we’re only let in on it when a policeman reports on it back at the station! And that fits, because everything here is about character: what these people do, what they said they would do, why they said they’d do it and what they end up doing after they change their minds. I’m not aware of another adaptation of the source novel but I could easily see it as a relatively cheap stage production. Most of the film takes place inside the barn, with a couple of scenes elsewhere as the CID try to figure out where the bus and its prisoners are, very few of which truly warrant a set of their own. Let’s just say that even the BBC could have afforded to stage this in 1963.

I think I liked this most because it’s unusual. It’s a film about criminals, but the only violent thug is quickly removed from the fray, leaving a bunch of others who arguably shouldn’t even be seen as criminals. And here, I’ll return to Rupert Croft-Cooke, because it seems likely to me that this was a very deliberate approach that reflected his own problems with the law. He was a fascinating soul, another notable I’d love to read a biography about. What matters here isn’t his diverse work as a journalist, playwright, lecturer, broadcaster or antiquarian book dealer in a whole slew of different countries, but his secret life as a gay man. I don’t say secret in the sense that he hadn’t come out of the closet, but in the sense that it was illegal in England for men to engage in homosexual acts until the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 and, even then, many continued to be locked up for buggery, gross indecency or solicitation, meaning anal sex, touching or kissing in public and merely smiling or winking at other men, even if no sexual act ever took place.

Croft-Cooke was sent to prison in 1953 for gross indecency, because the Home Office was cracking down again. He had invited two Navy cooks to his house for the weekend, where they had a grand old time with Croft-Cooke and his secretary/companion, Joseph Alexander. After leaving, the cooks assaulted two men, one of whom turned out to be a policeman. They avoided prosecution with testimony against Croft-Cooke, which is a bizarre sort of plea deal that highlights just where the priorities of law enforcement were at the time. After being released, he promptly wrote about his time in prison in the non-fiction The Verdict of You All but it seems to me that he was remembering it as he wrote Clash by Night too. It seems odd for Martin Lord to receive five years for saving his wife from being raped in her own front room, unless you see it as a comment on the injustice inherent in the system. Lush shouldn’t be there either—even the prison guard admitted that—and clearly Selwyn’s “brotherly love” was a euphemism for simply being gay.

In other words, we’re set up to wonder about what being a criminal means. Excluding Rennison, the overt thug whose very actions demonstrate that he should absolutely be locked up for the safety of the public, the movie makes a vague case for each of the other five. Grey-Simmons was convicted of fraud, which may or may not really be financial incompetence. Certainly, he comes across as sympathetic, not just because he’s a model prisoner who follows orders like he’s still in the army but because his flashback explains very clearly to us that his wife is a prize bitch. Roberts is the only one of the five obviously guilty of what he was charged with, but the subsequent events in this film highlight how he’s a good guy really, someone failed by the nation at large who didn’t know any better. Certainly, his path to redemption is clear. So I’m reading Croft-Cooke’s story as an indictment of the legal system in the UK in 1953, which would have stood in 1962. No wonder he moved to Morocco after getting out of prison. They were more civilised.

Now, all this sympathy doesn’t mean that we have to like everyone trapped in the likely furnace to be. Watts is a flawed gatekeeper, but a decent soul bright enough to unshackle his prisoners, given the circumstances, and keep at least some semblance of order as a succession of brainstormed ideas are presented to get out of the highly flammable mess they’ve found themselves in. The Major has moments where he subconsciously takes the lead, but not in a particularly officious way. His ideas aren’t great but they’re worth an evaluation. Lord has ideas too, because he’s a local himself and so knows the farm, but he only shares them with Roberts, who we’re not surprised to find is more than willing to take advantage. We kind of like all these characters and feel a little sorry that they’re in trouble, meaning their imminent time served at Her Majesty’s pleasure as much as being trapped inside a probable barn of death. It falls to Selwyn and Lush to add a darker side to these unwilling compatriots and here things get really interesting.

If Croft-Cooke wrote Selwyn as a gay character, I find it interesting that he’s so unlikeable. He doesn’t have any ideas of his own, so spends his time spouting Biblical passages at people. Maybe Croft-Cooke saw himself more like Martin Lord, who’s the most decent British soul in the film, and abstracted his homosexuality onto Selwyn just to spin out the characters. If so, maybe there’s a part of his ordeal in each of these characters: a decent soul, a gay man, a talker whose mouth gets him into trouble and a man who follows the rules. That idea would make for interesting reading, if someone happens to know enough about him to write a decent analysis, especially when it comes to Victor Lush. He’s not a bad person per se but he has enough mental disorders that he would be a focus in a different sort of film and, even kept in the background, Sallis is given many of the best lines and the scenes that will likely stay with me the longest. His eventual demise is an absolute peach of a scene, brutal but heartbreaking.

I love discovering the earlier work of actors I know from my childhood watching British television and Sallis did much that would have surprised the teenage me who saw him play Norman Clegg in Last of the Summer Wine so naturally that I never really thought much about the fact that he was played by an actor who could probably do other things too. Sallis became an actor during the war, rather than before it like so many others, being asked to lead an amateur production of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever during his time as an RAF wireless mechanic teaching radio procedures. It was received well and he caught the bug, debuting on the London stage in 1946 and Broadway in 1964, playing Dr. Watson in a musical take on Sherlock Holmes called Baker Street that ran for six months. In some instances, such as with John Osborne’s Inadmissable Evidence, he continued his role from the New York stage to a later feature film adaptation. Of course, by that point, he’d made plenty of movies, including The Scapegoat and The Mouse on the Moon.

His first feature was Stranger from Venus in 1954, as an uncredited soldier, and I’ve enjoyed other uncredited roles of his in pictures as different as Doctor in Love and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He wasn’t a star by the time he made Clash by Night, but he was clearly reliable enough a character actor to entrust with a quirky role like Victor Lush. He’s disturbingly good as a damaged young soul who’s going to prison for trying to give a girl primroses. We can’t quite tell if he’s an innocent child in a man’s body or a more knowing adult, given lines like, “Sometimes I like people to be afraid” and “That’s why I had to stop her.” He’s certainly paranoid, easily thrown off balance and prone to dangerous escalations when things don’t go how he expects, which makes him all the more watchable as Selwyn tries to talk to him about Jesus. It’s a more chilling role than the ones he got in outright horror flicks, like The Curse of the Werewolf, Scream and Scream Again and Taste the Blood of Dracula, two Hammers and an Amicus.

Of course, we don’t know Sallis from feature films, even though he made twenty-eight of them. We know him from television and short animated films. He found television quickly, appearing as Quince in what I presume was a live BBC broadcast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as early as 1947. His first major role came as the titular character in The Diary of Samuel Pepys, which ran for fourteen episodes in 1958. Like what seems like every other British actor in history, he had a role on Doctor Who, as a scientist in the Patrick Troughton era story The Ice Warriors. Eventually, of course, he came to the role of Norman Clegg, an introspective old man in rural Yorkshire who never quite grew up, debuting on an episode of Comedy Playhouse in 1973 that was so successful that it turned into a show proper, Last of the Summer Wine. It lasted for thirty-one series until 2010, remaining the longest running sitcom in the world, not even including the prequel series, in which he played his regular character’s father.

While Last of the Summer Wine was enough to seal his screen immortality, he had another iconic role still to come. He’d worked with his voice extensively, bringing life to Rat in many episodes of The Wind in the Willows and its sequel, Oh! Mr. Toad, so it isn’t shocking that a student animator called Nick Park would reach out to see if he would voice an eccentric inventor in a short film. Sallis agreed in 1983, on the condition that Park donate £50 to his favourite charity, but when A Grand Day Out finally saw release in 1989, it won a BAFTA, incredibly losing out for an Oscar to another Nick Park claymation, Creature Comforts; its first couple of sequels, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, did win Academy Awards on their own merits. Sallis’s final work was in 2010, voicing Wallace once more in a documentary series, Wallace and Gromit’s World of Invention. He died seven years later at 96 years young, and he’s buried next to his co-star of twenty-six years on Last of the Summer Wine, Bill “Compo” Owen, near Holmfirth, the town in which it was set.

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