Monday, August 07, 2017

The Strange Affair (1968)

A truly forgotten British movie from the swinging sixties, I've spent a long time trying to see The Strange Affair, finally succeeding this weekend.  Of course when we eventually catch up with stuff we've spent an age searching for, we often find that they don't live up to our anticipations.  So, was The Strange Affair a disappointment?  Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn't.  In fact, I'd say that it exceeded my expectations, proving to be a well made, atmospheric and intelligently made, if somewhat unconventional, crime movie.

At some point in the dim and distant past The Strange Affair was described as 'fragmented treatment of a conventional novel' (by Bernard Toms, who, as far as I know, only wrote two novels, of which The Strange Affair was the more successful) and, because of the film's unavailability has become the standard description of it whenever the movie is mentioned.  The term 'fragmentary' rather implies that it is one of those swinging sixties films like Blow Up, which eschew conventional narrative structures and plotting, instead presenting the viewer with a series of scenes and images from which a 'story' might be discerned.  This is most certainly not the case with The Strange Affair.  It is only 'fragmentary' in the sense that, unlike conventional British crime films of the fifties and early sixties, it doesn't feel the necessity to include endless dialogue heavy sequences in order to facilitate plot and character exposition.  Instead, it presents us, from the off, with multiple plot lines headed by characters whose paths intersect as the film unfolds, eventually leading to a catastrophic - for several of them - climax.

The centre of the film is PC Peter Strange (Michael York), a naive young university graduate who has joined the Metropolitan Police with the idea of 'doing good' for society.  Determined to be a 'straight' copper, from the off Strange finds himself surrounded by corruption and rule bending.  On his first day on the beat, he makes his first arrest but forgets to caution the suspect - he's rescued by his more experienced partner who lies and tells their Sergeant that he had cautioned the suspect.  The suspect is an informant for Detective Sergeant Pearce (Jeremy Kemp), who occupies a parallel plot strand.  Pearce, when we meet him, is working for one of Scotland Yard's elite squads and is obsessed with bringing down the Quince clan, a family of criminals involved in all manner of rackets and headed by a former colleague of Pearce.  The latter is hampered in his quest by his superiors: his Chief Inspector is a regulation obsessed by-the-book functionary, while his Inspector is on the take from the Quinces and succeeds in tipping off the Quince brothers that a drug bust (set in motion by Pearce on the basis of a tip off from his informant) is imminent.  Pearce is consequently kicked off of the squad and transferred to the Divisional CID at Strange's station.

In another parallel strand, Strange becomes involved with a wild underage girl, Fred (Susan George) who lives with her aunt and uncle in a mansion.  In spite of this veneer of middle class respectability, Fred's aunt and uncle's lifestyle is financed by pornography: they film her various sexual encounters and sell the resultant porn movies.  Pearce, meanwhile, despite his avowed hatred of bent coppers, finds himself using illegal methods to try and frame his former inspector for corruption.  When this fails, he finds himself presented with another opportunity to try and convict the Quince brothers, this time for murder (of Charlie, the informant) after Strange chances upon a tramp who witnessed the killing.  When they are acquitted - due to the supposed unreliability of the witness - Pearce, who is clearly in the early stages of a breakdown, comes into possession of stills from a film of Strange and Fred having sex.  A disgusted Pearce, who had previously thought of Strange as an upright young copper, blackmails Strange into framing Quince senior by planting drugs on him.  At Quince's trial, Pearce begins to unravel under interrogation and subsequently admits framing Quince with Strange's assistance to a colleague who is secretly wearing a wire.  Strange, who has already handed in his resignation, is arrested and goes down for two years for Perverting the Course of Justice.

Put plainly, the plot sounds reasonably straight forward, but its actual execution in the film is anything but, th web of corruption and deceit is gradually woven, with an unwitting Strange at its centre.  We know that his down fall is inevitable - the film opens with him being taken to prison, before flashing back to his first day on the beat - the question is how the too-honest-for-his-own-good new recruit ends up disgraced.  As the film makes clear, it only takes a couple of mis-steps - primarily becoming involved with Fred - for Strange to begin his downward spiral.  It isn't as if Strange doesn't have opportunities to avoid the path to destruction, but like a character in one of Jean-Pierre Melville's crime films, he seems locked into his inevitable fate: no matter how much he twists and turns, he will always end up at the same destination.  Once he falls into the orbit of Pearce, a man whose obsessive pursuit of the Quince family results in him becoming the thing he most hates: a bent copper, he is doomed.  Except that Pearce clearly doesn't see himself as bent - in his logic it is OK to use any means to bring down the bad guys.  Unlike his Inspector, he hasn't taken back handers to derail justice, he's just cut some corners to bring down a villain.  But like Stange, he seems locked into his self destructive path.

The whole film exudes an atmosphere of inevitable doom, from the neon-lit faceless interiors to the demolished streets and run down estates which seem to dominate Strange's beat, decay and hopelessness is everywhere.  Indeed, the portrait of late sixties London presented by director David Greene is, in many ways, the real star of the film.  Shot on location in West London, we are presented with vistas of whole streets of derelict or demolished houses, piles of rubble strewn across roads and huge, dug out foundations.  The whole thing looks like a bomb site, as if World War Two is still in progress.  In reality, the demolition work and dug out foundations are in aid of the construction of the A40 fly over, the concrete supports for the roadway of which can be seen being put into position, ready to be lifted on to their supports.  This isn't the cosy (usually East End) London of regular British police movies, full of terraced back-to-back houses.  This is a London of tower blocks, modern red brick pubs and concrete multi-storey car parks: cold and dehumanised.  It underlines the idea of fundamental change occurring.  But it isn't the sort of change you see portrayed in many other British movies of the era - this certainly isn't a 'swinging London',  It's Satyrday nights are characterised by rucks between bikers and hippies rather than free love and happenings.

Whilst the physical decay of the streets mirrors the creeping corruption within the police force, so the changing urban landscape mirrors the changing nature of the police and the way in which it is perceived.  Traditionally uniformed Bobbies operate out of newly built modernist stations - their antiseptic interiors and anonymous exteriors exuding none of the warmth and sense of protection of the traditional 'nick'.  (Even the villains aren't the usual bank robbers and racketeers: drugs and pornography are the new criminal currency).  This is a new police force motivated by targets and politics and isolated from the community it is meant to police.  It's aim seems to be to protect its own reputation rather than the public and officers who don't grasp this, like Strange and Pearce, are ultimately doomed to become sacrificial lambs.

The film benefits enormously from the performances put in by York and Kemp in these roles.  York, usually an actor of limited range, rises to the occasion as the initially idealistic Strange, effectively recording his gradual disillusionment with the job, despite his valiant attempts to stay 'straight' and do things the 'right way'.  Kemp, a graduate of TV's Z-Cars, is magnificent as Pearce, whom despite his years on the job, shares something of Strange's naivety, still convincing himself that it is possible to convict villains the 'right way'.  Everything about Kemp's characterisation - his speech patterns, his posture,the way he walks even the modest car he drives - underlines the character's determination to stay 'straight' - and he more than effectively conveys the character's internal anguish when he fails to secure the Quince brothers' conviction.  Pearce's inability to stick to his principles is the film's true tragedy.  Kemp's performance makes clear the breakdown which engulfs Pearce as he fatally compromises himself in the latter part of the film.

York and Kemp are more than ably supported by George, whose Fred is an engaging mix of manipulation and childish naivety.  Other good performances come from the likes of veteran British character actor Jack Watson, who make the elder Quince a smoothly menacing yet charming villain.  This really is a film which deserves to be more widely known.  Sure, it has problems, largely in the timescale - York has handed in his resignation some time before Quince is arrested, for instance, yet is still on the force when the latter's trial comes up, something which would takes months to get to court.  Moreover, as York has already handed in his resignation, it is unclear why Pearce's threat to send the photos of him with Fred to the Superintendent should worry him: suspending or sacking him would hardly be effective as he was working his notice anyway and Fred would have been over the age of consent by the time the photos were taken, (when she meets Strange she tells him she is two weeks away from her sixteenth birthday and the film's internal timeline implies this period has elapsed by the time he sleeps with her).

I find it interesting that whilst lots of more conventional portrayals of the UK's police, ranging from Dixon of Dock Green on TV and the Scotland Yard series on film have survived and are still shown, The Strange Affair has all but vanished.  If I were paranoid I might suspect that it had been suppressed.  It took TV a good few years to catch up with the film in its portrayal of the police.  If you get the chance to see this heady mix of underage sex and police corruption (all under pinned by a great Basil Kircher score) , grab it with both hands.



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