Reviews

The Rocking Horse Winner (1950)

David Sanjek

The fascination of British filmmakers with the visually dynamic even occurs in films that seem concerned with quotidian subject matter.


The Rocking Horse Winner

Director: Anthony Pelissier
Cast: John Mills, Valerie Hobson, John Howard Davies
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: Allied Filmmakers
First date: 1964
US DVD Release Date: 2002-09-24

SÉANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON
Director: Bryan Forbes
Cast: Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough
(Allied Filmmakers, 1964) Rated: Not rated
DVD release date: 24 September 2002

by David Sanjek

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As Real As a Dream

For many years, British cinema seemed to be the whipping boy of the film community. The body of work associated with the nation has been, at best, ranked as mediocre and, at worst as an out and out waste of celluloid. The depths to which this rhetoric has descended can be quite startling. They range from the Indian director Satyajit Ray's curt dismissal, "I do not think the British are temperamentally equipped to make the best use of the movie camera" to Francois Truffaut's outrageous assumption of "a certain incompatibility between the terms 'cinema' and 'Britain.'" The fact that he made this statement during the course of his celebrated conversations with Alfred Hitchcock makes it even more questionable. Where did he think his idol was born?

Critical commentary does have a way of correcting itself over the course of time. The slew of books and articles on British cinema that have appeared in the last decade have so successfully revealed the complexity of their subject that it seems as if earlier commentators willfully dismissed the subject out of hand. The only explanation for their knee jerk belief that the country's films lacked any appreciable style or character has to be they did not pay too much attention. For every British film obsessed with the mundane realities associated with the "kitchen sink" drama, there are many others that illustrate a more colorful and often deliberately excessive side to the national character.

As Julian Petley states in the Charles Barr collection, All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema, "These form an other, repressed side of British cinema, a dark, disdained thread weaving the length and breadth of that cinema, crossing authorial and generic boundaries, sometimes almost entirely invisible, sometimes erupting explosively, always received critically with fear and disapproval." Examples of this subterranean tradition include the horror films that emerged from the Hammer studio with their colorful, over the top elaboration of Gothic traditions, the romantic melodramas of the 1940s with their bombastic visual style and tempestuously assertive female protagonists and the long standing, taboo-busting slapstick of the "Carry On" series with its randy lads and busty women. Elements of this attractive excess also run through the career of the late Michael Powell. Director of such major films as Black Narcissusand The Red Shoes, he is now revered by many as perhaps the greatest home grown British stylist but was often reviled in his day for pictorial bombast.

The fascination of British filmmakers with the visually dynamic even occurs in films that seem concerned with quotidian subject matter. This is illustrated by both the literary adaptation and the domestic drama. Subject matter that in less able hands would be nothing more or less than pedestrian comes to possess an unusual spark of peculiarity. This is the case with these two DVDs, both of which seem at first to succumb to all the stereotypes espoused by Ray, Truffaut and others but prove, upon closer examination, to manifest, with greater in the case of the first and lesser success in the second, elements of the more compelling tendencies of the national cinema.

The Rocking Horse Winner is an overlooked and undervalued example of the British tendency to adapt major works of their national literature. Taken from a D. H. Lawrence short story, it tells of the traumatic downfall of an upper middle class family struggling to maintain appearances in the face of habitual overspending. The worst offender is the status-conscious mother, Hester Grahame (Valerie Hobson, the scientist's spouse in James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein). Troubled by the fractious debates between his parents, Paul Grahame (John Howard Davies) yearns to find a way to solve the family's fiscal crises.

He soon discovers he has a psychic connection with his toy rocking horse, such that when he rides it, Paul can predict who will win at the track. Tragically, no matter how much money Paul earns, his mother's extravagant tastes only escalate, and in a final, frenzied effort to discern the winner of a major event, the boy collapses and dies from exhaustion.

Anthony Pelissier's astute translation of Lawrence's richly symbolic tale takes a two-pronged approach to the material. For the most part, he focuses on the familiar British fascination with the common events of daily life, in this case members of the leisure class with their friendly, middle-aged housekeeper and an affable workman. However, when Paul mounts his horse, the visual approach becomes more baroque and stylized. Pelissier uses eccentric camera angles and exaggerated lighting to heighten the scenes. The one realm inevitably collapses into the other with Paul's death, and Pelissier makes his final sequence all the more effective by matter-of-factly shooting the burning of the boy's horse as overseen by his distraught mother.

It is the deliberate commingling of the domestic and the dynamic that makes The Rocking Horse Winner so successful as a literary adaptation. The expressiveness of the sequences on horseback only makes the presumed splendor of the family's commodity-obsessed existence come across as all the more vacuous. In light of how much the English were destitute of luxury goods at the time of the film's release, its implicit attack upon consumerism takes on greater significance. One can only imagine how some members of the audience felt when Hester Grahame covets goods that they too were unable to possess.

Bryan Forbes's Séance on a Wet Afternoon similarly combines a domestic setting with an element of the fantastic, in this case the belief in communication with the dead. Myra Savage (the American actress Kim Stanley) maintains her meager living by working as a medium. She hopes to rise above her station by concocting a kidnapping scheme with her weak-willed husband, Billy (Sir Richard Attenborough) -- to kidnap young Judith Donner (Amanda Clayton), the daughter of a well-to-do family. Myra believes she can raise her public profile as a psychic by "revealing" the girl's location to the distraught parents. In the end, however, the hollowness of this plot leads to her capture by the police.

The bare bones of the plot offer ample opportunities for Forbes to engage in atmosphere and suspense. Forbes attempts to balance the depressing details of the Savages' lower class life with the psychological complexity connected to Myra's fragile mental state. But the two approaches do not, as in Pelissier's film, comfortably coexist. Séance on a Wet Afternoon amounts unfortunately to a tepid exercise in emotional manipulation and primitive plot mechanics. Forbes handles the domestic portion of the narrative with some aplomb, although at times the film comes across as a showboating exercise for Stanley's method acting.

Mostly, Forbes brings little energy to the routine requirements of a thriller. He rarely ratchets up the energy of the plot line or takes advantage of what little physical action is involved in order to put the audience on the edge of their seat. The sequence in which Billy eludes the police after he receives the ransom money from the Claytons would seem to be a natural for close cutting and split second transitions. Rather than a gripping succession of near escapes, Forbes imparts remarkably little tension as he prosaically shows Billy nervously eyeing the undercover police or racing down hallways in order to escape them.

While Séance on a Wet Afternoon won several prizes at film festivals and led to Kim Stanley's nomination for an Academy Award, it seems in retrospect to pale in comparison to other works of the period that more successfully complicate a domestic setting. One wishes that a film like The Nanny, a Hammer feature directed by the underrated and long forgotten Seth Holt, was more readily available, as it succeeds where Forbes fails.

Despite the casting of Bette Davis in the title role, The Nanny appeared at the time as a better than average program feature, nothing more. In retrospect, Holt combines with a skill that puts the better-known Forbes to shame the daily affairs of an upper class English family with an unnerving sense of the hollow foundations of their lives. Little in Forbes's film compares with the nerve raking sequence when Davis watches impassively as Jill Bennett's character succumbs to a fatal heart attack.

It should be stated that Bryan Forbes did go on to have a successful, even illustrious career, winning critical plaudits, serving as managing director of EMI studios and even helming the camp classic The Stepford Wives. However, it is the work of unsung individuals like Pelissier and Holt that reinforce the validity and continuing fascination of the "dark, disdained thread" in British cinema that Julian Petley memorialized.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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