Friday, October 23, 2015

Hillbillys, B-Movies and Oliver Tobias

Well, the good news is that Talking Pictures TV has Las Vegas Hillbillys on this weekend.  So, having set the digital recorder up, I'll hopefully be able to bring you more hillbilly goodness in the near future, with an appreciation of the movie to which Hillbillys in a Haunted House is a sequel.  Apparently, this one involves casinos (obviously), biker gangs and Jayne Mansfield and Mamie van Doren, two of the biggest breasted female stars of the era.  I'm not sure if any gorillas are involved.  I have to say that Talking Pictures TV continues to be a marvel as far as I'm concerned.  It is undoubtedly the best thing to have launched on Freeview in an age - hardly a week goes by without at least one old movie turning up there that I set the recorder for - I now have an incredible backlog of stuff waiting to be watched.  Most recently, I was able to record The Giant Gila Monster from the overnight schedules - it was a companion piece to The Killer Shrews, which I already have on DVD.  Being a completest, I've waited a long time for this one to turn up, so that I can enjoy a double bill of incredibly cheap monster movies.

But it isn't just old b-movies which the channel has allowed me to catch up with.  One of the first films I recorded from Talking Pictures TV was the 1979 British caper movie A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.  It was a film I had fond, albeit somewhat vague, memories of and which hadn't turned up on terrestrial TV in an age.  The last film directed by Ralph Thomas, a director whose heyday had been in the fifties and sixties with popular fare like the Doctor series and whose career had floundered somewhat in the seventies as he'd moved into directing sex comedies like Percy, Nightingale is something of an oddity, very uneven in tone and seemingly unable to make up its mind as whether to be a comedy or a crime thriller.  That said, it is actually a pretty entertaining film, ending Thomas' long directorial career on a high note.  It vividly captures late seventies London, both upmarket Mayfair and less fashionable Chiswick High Street, full of bustling life.  It also boasts a fantastic cast, with Richard Jordan putting in a likeable performance as the token American lead and David Niven, cast somewhat against type as the chief villain.  Indeed, Niven's performance (whilst not quite his last film appearance, this was the last in which he was able to speak his lines himself) is very impressive, combining his trademark urbane charm with genuine menace as the local crime boss.

Despite being presented as a bank robbery caper, the crimes themselves actually account for relatively little of the running time, with the preparations and aftermath receiving more attention.  There are no car chases, no violence and very little of the action you might expect in a crime movie.  Instead, the focus is firmly on the characters, particularly ex con Jordan's attempts to first go straight, then to extricate himself from Niven's plans before realising that he actually enjoys the planning of the heist.  With Thomas' sure hand on the tiller, the whole thing moves at a reasonable pace and rarely drags, despite the lack of any real action.  Interestingly, the version of the film shown by Talking Pictures TV includes Elke Sommers' topless shower scene, which was always cut out of terrestrial TV screenings. 

Amongst the cast of Nightingale is Oliver Tobias.  Indeed, he gets second billing in the opening titles.  In spite of this, he actually has very little to do, effectively playing a supporting role to Jordan and Niven, who get the lion's share of the dialogue and running time.  Which, sadly, seems to have been his fate.  Throughout the seventies, Tobias was perpetually the 'next big thing', following up early TV success as Arthur of the Britons with lead roles in films like The Stud and Arabian Adventure.  But he never quite seemed to break into the really big time, despite even being linked to the role of James Bond before Timothy Dalton was cast.  Even when he starred in one of Cliff Twemlow's films - Firestar First Contact - his character was pretty much sidelined part way through the movie, leaving Cliff to carry the action.  All of which is a pity as, in Nightingale, he delivers a very likeable and charismatic performance - he just isn't given enough to do by the script.  Despite his career never reaching the heights many were predicting for him in the seventies, Tobias has continued to work steadily, mainly on TV. 

To get back to the point, I'm grateful to Talking Pictures TV for giving me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. Like many of the films I enjoy, it might not be a classic, but it is a solidly made piece of entertainment which also provides a fascinating snapshot of its era.  It provides a fitting coda to the career of Ralph Thomas, being a kind of film (a character driven crime caper) which simply wasn't being made any more (especially in the UK), as he was a director of a kind who simply went out of fashion in the British film industry of the seventies.



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