Friday, November 21, 2014

Clegg (1970)

"My name is Harry Clegg.  I'm a private eye.  I'm also a cold blooded killer, a lecher, a liar and a thief.  My big problem is that I've been a loser since the day I was born."

Gilbert Wynne's voice over gets Lindsay Shonteff's 1970 private eye thriller off to a brisk start.  Having established our anti-hero's credentials we're thrown straight into a frantic action sequence featuring thugs, blazing sten guns and fists - the fall-out from Clegg's most recent case.  Apparently his client wanted his money back as he didn't get his divorce, despite having paid Clegg a tenner to sleep with his wife to prove her infidelity.  Problems with clients seem to characterise Clegg's professional life: when they aren't having him beaten up and threatened with guns, they're dropping dead before they can pay him.  Indeed, he spends a lot of the film trying to find new paying clients rather than chasing down leads.

Clegg could well lay claim to being Shonteff's best movie.  Cynics might sneer that such an accolade doesn't count for much, bearing in mind the Canadian's generally perceived status as a hack director of poverty row exploitation movies.  But that would be to completely misunderstand Shonteff's approach.  Which a lot of people seem to.  "One of the most unintentionally hilarious films I've ever seen", brays some idiot in the comments of the You Tube posting of Clegg.  Except that the point is that Shonteff intends it to be funny.

Whilst Clegg might superficially appear to be a straightforward re-location of the US hardboiled private eye movie to the UK, visiting every clich√© of the genre in process, in actuality it is a deft deconstruction of the genre.  Certainly, all the regular tropes of private eye fiction are there: the mean streets, the squalid flat, the beaten up car, a battered ''hero who spends his time walking those mean streets, when he isn't bedding a succession of gorgeous girls that is.  But if you look closer you'll see that although Clegg has the private eye lifestyle, he actually does very little detecting, relying instead on his female contact in the police force, taking her calls even as he's climbing into bed with yet another conquest.  When he does engage in any leg work he's usually pretty inept, blundering into situations in search of information and instead getting beaten up or having doors slammed in his face.  He frequently forgets his gun and even when he does carry it, he's often forgotten to load it, (although this works to his advantage in one crucial scene).   Raymond Chandler might have thought that 'down these mean streets must walk a man who isn't mean', but Clegg is no knightly Philip Marlowe with a personal code of honour: he's a mean bastard interested only in saving his own skin and getting paid.  He's even prepared to forgo the latter if it achieves the former, happily sacrificing his client at the climax.

Then there's the fact that in spite of the number of car chases, beatings and public shoot outs Clegg is involved in, the police seem to remain oblivious to his activities.  The only time he is pulled in by the cops, he gets warned by a Flying Squad Inspector that if he's caught carrying his gun he'll be put away - apparently failing to notice the fact (revealed in the next scene) that Clegg has been wearing it in shoulder holster during the entire interview.  The plot, for what it's worth, involves several prominent and wealthy businessmen receiving death threats, then being killed (before they can pay Clegg for his services).   The trail eventually leads to dodgy fashion designer Gary Hope (a Shonteff regular, here giving a relatively restrained performance compared to some of the villains he plays in the director's later films) and yet more shootings and beatings.

Shot in 1969 on some grimy looking London locations, allegedly for ¬£6000, (most of the financing came from a cameraman friend of the director's who wanted to invest in a low-budget film), Clegg was effectively a job creation scheme on Shonteff's part.  His career as a commercial director having been derailed by various circumstances, (he'd previously made films for producers like Harry Alan Towers and Richard Gordon), Shonteff realised that the only way for him to continue as a director was to independently produce films himself (often, as here, using the alias 'Lewis J Force' for the producer credit).  Which meant working on micro-budgets, shooting entirely on location and not using expensive star actors (leading man Gilbert Wynne, for instance, was known principally as TV actor, having been a regular in BBC police series  Softly, Softly during the sixties).  The result was an impressively gritty looking film which belies its low budget, with some well-staged action sequences, (including a terrific car chase around narrow and car-clogged London streets), and, unusually for a Shonteff film, some location shooting in Paris.

Shonteff moves the whole thing along at a cracking pace, with sharp editing and very nicely photographed locations adding to the impression of a much higher budget.  Paul Ferris' excellent score helps keep the pace up and adds immeasurably to the film's general ambience. Wynne's sardonic first person voice-overs are sharp, witty and funny, helping to establish Clegg's mercenary character adding to the picture's cynical tone.  I have to say that I found watching Clegg an exhilarating experience, both funny and exciting, it's easily one of the best British crime movies of the seventies - brisker and more violent than the bigger budgeted and better known Get Carter, for example and much more fun than, say, the Richard Burton starring Villain or the dour Oliver Reed thick ear Sitting Target.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming that Lindsay Shonteff is some kind of unjustly neglected auteur of British cinema.  But what Clegg shows is that he was a skilled and efficient director of low budget films with a distinctive style.  In an era when films are apparently created by committees and focus groups and spend years in pre-production, it's refreshing to be reminded of an era when film makers just went out there and made movies.  Movies, incidentally, which are at least ten times as entertaining as the average contemporary Hollywood blockbuster.

But don't just take my word for it - at the time of writing an excellent print of Clegg is still available to see on You Tube.  Go watch it before someone gets it taken down!



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