Cast: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Ralph Brown, Richard Griffiths
“We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!” Withnail
I am not one to believe in fate, but there has to be something magical about the random moment, at the age of seventeen, I was perusing my local video shop looking for a film to rent, and the cover of low-budget, British independent character drama, Withnail and I (1987), shone amidst the variety of Hollywood produced fodder. I picked up the box and for some reason the story of two unemployed actors mooching about at the fag end of the 1960s called to me. Perhaps it was the front cover featuring the debauched and worse-for-wear looking character of Withnail which drew me in? Or was it the casting of Paul McGann as the eponymous ‘I’, an actor I recognised from excellent TV drama, The Monocled Mutineer. Whatever the reasons, I rented the film and a special bond was formed forthwith. It lasts to this day.
Firmly in my top-ten-line-for-line-best-dialogue-ever-movies, Withnail and I (1987) simply bursts with memorable spats, insults, one-liners, and speeches. Another major strength of Bruce Robinson’s elegantly profane screenplay is the relationship between permanently inebriated and cowardly ‘thespian’, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and his buddy, ‘I’ (McGann). It is a strange friendship full of mutual disrespect, petty bickering, and envy, but by the end of the film a kindly form of love is revealed. Withnail may seem an angry man, but ultimately, he’s using that ire to hide pain, sadness, and disappointment.
“I feel like a pig shat in my head.” Withnail
Richard E. Grant is incredible as the paralytic, pathetic and cowardly Withnail, who, along with ‘I’, laments a lack of career opportunities. Such bitterness, jealousy and ranting make him hugely obnoxious. However, Robinson’s exquisite writing and Grant’s subtly empathetic performance actually create an incredibly poignant character. Well, that and he’s absolutely hilarious, Indeed, it’s a hedonistic joy witnessing Withnail drinking every liquid known to humanity as he attempts to obliterate the now and tomorrow. Unbelievably, Richard E. Grant was teetotal, so director Bruce Robinson had to get him very, very drunk in preparation for a role he never bettered in his whole career.
Bruce Robinson, arguably, never reached the heights of Withnail and I (1987) again, although he does have other impressive writing credits. But this screenplay is one of the greatest ever written; conversely making it one of the funniest and tragic films of all time. Lastly, his often quoted but rarely bettered work is one of the greatest I have ever read, brimming with towering poetry, bilious insults, and drunken repartee. I mean there is little plot to the story of two actors getting drunk, going to the country, getting drunk and coming back. However, it remains one of my favourite films of all time, with one of the most memorable characters in Withnail.
GREAT ENSEMBLE FILM CASTS #4 – HELL DRIVERS (1957)
Directed by: Cy Endfield
Produced by: Benjamin Fisz and Earl St John
Written by: Cy Endfield and John Kruse
Cast: Stanley Baker, Peggy Cummins, Patrick McGoohan, Herbert Lom, Sean Connery, William Hartnell, Alfie Bass, Sid James, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, Jill Ireland etc.
**** CONTAINS SPOILERS ****
Often on this blog I will write about very well-known actors or films, however, sometimes it’s good to explore more forgotten cinematic gems. Hell Drivers (1957), is one such film from the past that certainly deserves revisiting. Not simply because it is an excellent action drama, but because it contains an incredible cast, with most of the players going on to have major parts in some iconic screen roles. I caught the film again on the cable channel, Talking Pictures, and it’s a really gripping low-budget British thriller.
The plot of Hell Drivers (1957) is quite simple. Tom Yateley (Stanley Baker), a drifter with an unknown past, turns up looking for work at Hawlett’s truck yard. Their group of drivers carry gravel/ballast from a quarry to site. The drama derives from the fact they must meet a certain quota per day, and this involves driving like maniacs to achieve this. Let’s just say that the Health and Safety executive would have a field day now. But that’s one of the strengths of the script. In post-war Britain men and women were desperate for work and money and therefore prepared to do anything to survive. Thus, the film, amidst the helter-skelter driving action, contains a strong social commentary in regard to the exploitation of the workers. There is of course camaraderie among the men, but fierce rivalries also develop. Such competitiveness drives the conflict within the film.
Cy Endfield, a solid American genre filmmaker, directs the ensemble cast brilliantly. What a cast it is too! It’s essentially a “who’s who?” of “before they were famous” actors, all combining to incredible effect. Stanley Baker as Tom carries the lead role. Baker would gain further success in Endfield’s war epic Zulu (1964), and become a renowned lead until his death at the age of 48. The supporting cast though, is something else. Patrick McGoohan, who plays the bruising antagonist, Red, would cement his fame in the incredible 1960’s cult classic, The Prisoner. Furthermore, we have the first Doctor Who in William Hartnell and of course, James Bond himself, Sean Connery. If that wasn’t all, The Man From Uncle star, David McCallum, features in an early role. So does the already established comedic actor Sid James. James would become synonymous with the quintessentially English, Carry On…, film series. Throw in great characters actors Herbert Lom, Gordon Jackson, Alfie Bass and a very young, Jill Ireland, and you have one hell of a cast; all starring in this excellent British film gem.
Eight years ago I wrote some articles for a nifty little website called Obsessed with Film. The site was independent and would have some geeky and interesting articles on film and television. Years later the site became the click-bait-pop-ups-from-hell-advertising-led-but-still-not-too bad: www.whatculture.com
Anyway, one of the articles was about some “forgotten” films or, as I shall refer to them, under-rated film classics. Basically, I listed films which I felt were deserving of further praise or viewings. The first list and subsequent list included: Bad Santa (2003), Dog Soldiers (2002), Chopper (2000), Midnight Run (1988), Tremors (1990), Locke (2014),Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and many more.
My rules are simple. An under-rated classic can be a film I love plus not be one of the following:
Must not have won an Oscar.
Must not have won a BAFTA.
Must not appear in the AFI Top 100 list.
Must not appear in the IMDB Top 250 list.
Must not appear in the BFI 100 Great British films.
Must not appear in the all-time highest grossing movies of list.
So, with these criteria in mind I present a further sequel to my previous article with another set of under-rated film classics. If you have any suggestions that fit the criteria please do let me know and I will include them on my next list.
BEFORE I WAKE (2016)
Before I Wake tells the moving story of an orphaned boy fostered by Thomas Jane and Kate Bosworth’s grieving parents. This was a dream-like and touching tale with a powerful element of horror which benefits from great performances by Bosworth and Jacob Tremblay. I imagine I’m the only person who actually rates this film but I think, despite some plot issues, it remains a beautiful hidden movie gem.
After the mostly horrendous Sylvester Stallone starring Judge Dredd adaptation, Karl Urban subsequently stepped into the boots of the ruthless cop hell-bent on bringing justice to Mega City One. It’s a lower budgeted, but tremendous action thriller with Dredd battling nefarious druglords in a fortified tower block complex; led by a grand turn from Lena Headey. Violent and darkly humorous, Dredd was not a box-office success, but it was short, sharp and loud with Urban, keeping his visor firmly to his face, giving a steely performance as the grizzled, veteran law-keeper.
GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2017)
This British independent period drama is not something I would usually go for. It’s a period drama and biopic about Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne and while these films are often by-the-numbers, this rendition of his life post World War I is a touching and emotionally heart-warming narrative. Thematically it is very strong with evocation of the post-traumatic stress Milne suffered after returning from war, plus the negative effect fame had on his family when his books became bestsellers. Domnhall Gleeson, Kelly Macdonald and Margot Robbie shine in their respective roles, but Will Tilston as young Christopher Robin/Billy Moon is a revelation as Milne’s young son.
THE MIST (2007)
Frank Darabont had tremendous success with a number of Stephen King adaptations, notably the now revered The Shawshank Redemption (1994). But, his rendition of King’s The Mist is an equally powerful movie. Starring: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Toby Jones, Laurie Holden and Darabont regular, Jeffrey DeMunn, the film centres on the aftermath of a violent thunderstorm in Bridgport, Maine. As townsfolk get trapped in a supermarket, any attempt at escape is prevented by a monstrous presence in the mist. With the supermarket representing a microcosm of humanity, the film poses the idea that religious fanatics are as much a threat as the aliens outside; with Marcia Gay Harden on ferocious form as the lead zealot. Thrilling and dark, The Mist is relentlessly frightening with a jaw-dropping ending.
THE OTHER GUYS (2010)
Adam McKay’s silly genre movie is an entertaining comedic cop film parody, thrilling action spoof and, on occasions, full of smart social commentary. It begins with an incredible chase sequence involving hero cops played by Samuel L. Jackson and Duwayne Johnson; only they are NOT the main protagonists because they are soon dispatched very early in the story. Enter the mismatched duo of Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as the eponymous anti-heroes who pursue Steve Coogan’s crooked CEO. Further, McKay has digs at money-men who manipulate the stock market to save their dishonest hides. With a twisting narrative, brilliant running gags and Wahlberg and Farrell’s stupendous double act, this is a highly memorable comedy full of stupidity, hilarity and style.
Phantasm is a synthesis of genres from rites-of-passage, suspense, horror and science fiction. Ultimately, it’s the epitome of a cult classic and a triumph of concepts over finance. It’s full of mood and atmosphere and has a creepy synth-based soundtrack that cranks up the fear factor. Director Don Coscarelli created an imaginative fantasy concerned with death and mourning that has stood the test of time. It may lack the polish of big budget productions but the scares and surrealism reminded me of the works of Italian horror-master Lucio Fulci and Spanish filmmaking genius Luis Bunuel. It’s a film I would wholly recommend for devotees of horror and for those who like their movies raw, inventive and nightmarish.
PUSHER II (2004)
Pusher II is even more relentlessly grim than the original featuring all manner of dumb, lower-class hoods trying to scrape gold from Copenhagen streets paved mainly with heroin and blood. It’s an unglamorous and honest realisation of criminal-life as low-level drug pushers fuck one another over on a regular basis. Mikkelsen’s Tonny is a tragic character, who is left rudderless by a manipulative father and just cannot cut a break due to both his own lack of intelligence or positive role models. Never has there been so much sympathy for a movie thug like Tonny as Mikkelsen extracts every bit of humanity he can from the poor beast.
RUNNING SCARED (2006)
This Paul Walker starring crime thriller is a proper B-movie and arguably isn’t even that good. Indeed, it does seem to fall into that sub-Tarantino narrative bracket. However, every time I have watched it I have been glued to the twisty plot and violent gun-play. Walker is the low level mobster in New Jersey, who, after a drug deal goes wrong, must locate an incriminating and missing hand-gun, or face a violent death. I think it’s the frantic pace and action that’s full of surprises and punchlines which kept me enthralled; and despite the generic nature of the story I really rate it as a proper guilty pleasure.
Cruelly buried by the Weinstein studio on initial release, this under-rated graphic novel adaptation is absolutely brilliant. Set in an apocalyptic future, the train becomes an analogy for class struggle between the haves and have-nots. The action is relentless as it depicts the working class struggle. Their revolution occurs with Chris Evans’ character leading the hungry poor to the top of the train where the rich and privileged live a life of luxury. Bong Joon-ho directs Evans, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Tilda Swinton expertly, as the film marries social commentary and blistering action with aplomb.
Written, surprisingly enough, by Wentworth Miller, the lead actor from Prison Break, this is a subtle and bleak contemporary Southern Gothic tale. Directed by genius filmmaker Park Chan-wook, it stars Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and the under-rated Matthew Goode as a dysfunctional family unit who all have secrets to hide. While the film moves slowly it creepily spreads a steady flow of dread as we never quite know which character holds the biggest threat. Inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), this psychological thriller is full of death, grief and mystery and if you prefer slow-burn suspense this is definitely a film for you.