Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Duffy (1968)

When watching a film from another era, one is constantly faced with the question of whether its visual style and content are actually reflective of that era, or whether its stylings were one of the things that actually influenced the 'look' of the era.  This is especially true of movies made during the 'swinging sixties', particularly those set around 'swinging London' - to what extent they are a true reflection of the era or simply part of the myth of the sixties which has lodged in the collective memory is a perplexing question.  The 'swinging sixties' was an era which mythologised itself as it was happening.  The truth, of course, is that the sixties were only truly 'swinging' for a relatively small number of people, mostly living in West London.  But TV promulgated the images across the UK (the world, indeed) and the relatively new phenomena of fashion chain stores spread cheap versions of the fashions into the provinces.  But the actual 'swinging' culture didn't really spread that far - you didn't get 'happenings' in Wiltshire, where I was growing up, for instance, and while miniskirts and flares became commonplace, 'free love' and copious quantities of psychedelic drugs didn't follow.  As my late father once noted: the 'permissive society' might have been happening in Ladbroke Grove, but there was little evidence of it on the Bemerton Heath council estate in Salisbury.  We certainly didn't have any real hippies - a few of my older siblings' friends grew their hair long enough to cover their ears, listened to Pink Floyd  and wore beads and sheepskin coats, but they still took baths regularly and lived with their parents rather than in squats.

The popular image of the 'swinging sixties' has been reinforced over the years by movies made later but set during the era, presenting a highly stylised  version of the time.  Which brings us, finally, to Duffy, a 1968 caper movie which, despite being made in the sixties, looks like one of those later stylised versions of the 'swinging sixties'.  Indeed, at times it looks like an Austin Powers movie which had actually been filmed during the sixties.  It's hard to put into words exactly how determined the film seems to be to capture the era's own myth of itself, serving up every 'swinging' cliche possible: rich wastrels sporting outlandish wardrobes, joint smoking middle aged semi-hippie drop outs, drug fuelled discos at Moroccan clubs (suitably filmed in soft focus) and lots of counter culture jargon.  Not to mention lots of irreverence toward authority.  Interestingly, only the early scenes take place in 'swinging London' (kicking off at one of those 'swinging' gentleman's clubs where men in fabulous trousers wager a thousand pounds on the throw of a dart), with most of the action taking place in Morocco (actually filmed in Spain).

The plot is straightforward: half brothers James Fox and John Alderton plot to rip off their hated father (James Mason) by stealing a shipment of sterling he's moving by ship from Tangiers.  To do this, they enlist the help of smuggler Duffy (James Coburn), who has retired from the business and now lives in Tangiers in an an apartment full of modern sculptures.  Like Coburn himself, Duffy seems pretty enamoured of the new counter culture of the sixties.  Also along for the ride is Fox's girlfriend, played by Susannah York, who turns out to be something of a femme fatale.  Albeit a very swinging one.  Interestingly, the mechanics of the heist itself are of secondary importance, with the film focusing instead on the shifting relationships between the main characters and establishing the 'swinging' milieu.  Fascinatingly, Duffy scores highly in its (admittedly exaggerated)  portrayal of the whole 'swinging' scene, with the only characters seemingly living the lifestyle being financially well off.  Indeed, the contrast between Fox, who, due to having private means left to him by his mother, can enjoy the full trappings of 'swinging London', and his brother Alderton, who is forced to earn a living working as a lowly clerk in their father's shipping company, neatly sums up the reality of the era.  The fact is that most young people in the sixties were too busy working to have time to rebel or 'swing'.

The film constantly underlines this point, with the 'swinging' lifestyle consistently shown as the preserve of the wealthy, whether at the up market Moroccan beach club which features prominently, or Mason, Fox and Alderton's London club.  The film inevitably culminates with a string of plot twists, none that surprising, which ultimately conform to the underlying morality of the heist movie: that the perpetrators shouldn't profit from their crimes.  That said, Duffy himself does get away with some of the money, but only because he tricks its rightful owner, Mason, into giving it to him as a reward for 'finding' the stolen loot.  While there's nothing really original or unexpected in the plot, it has to be said that Duffy is superbly made, with excellent production values, first rate cinematography and efficient direction from Robert Parrish (who had just come off of another 'swinging' move, the 1967 Casino Royale, where he had been one of an army of directors who were unable to make anything coherent out of the would be Bond spoof).  The performances from the leads are exactly as you'd expect: Coburn is typically laid back, Fox typically aristocratic, Mason typically smooth, Alderton amusing and York beautiful and sophisticated.

Duffy didn't set the box office on fire when it was released, perhaps because there had already  been too many movies of its ilk released. perhaps because it wasn't distinctive enough.  Whatever the reason, the film became unavailable for many yeas, with no VHS or DVD release and few TV outings.  It has, however, recently been resurrected by Talking Pictures TV in a very nice print.  It's well worth watching as it encapsulates the myth of the 'swinging sixties' so well,  Not only that, but it's so, well, groovy.



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