Skip to main content

You were damn bolshie in the army, and now you’re doing the same thing here.

I’m All Right Jack
(1959)

(SPOILERS) I don’t think I previously recognised quite what an incredible performance Peter Sellers gives in I’m All Right Jack. There are others for which he is better known – Clouseau, Strangelove, maybe Chancey Gardner – but none are as immersive as this transformation. You can’t see Sellers in Fred Kite, waiting to corpse, even though, being Sellers at his best, the performance is very funny. Perhaps he rose to the challenge so immaculately because the Boulting Brothers’ satire is so perfectly sculpted. Every character, plot development and pointed barb is acutely judged; it remains one of the pinnacles of British comedy.

Hitchcock: I might have known it! You were damn bolshie in the army, and now you’re doing the same thing here.

The picture is commonly simply cited as having an anti-union stance, savaging laziness on the part of the workers and militant tendencies on the parts of the union leaders, but it would be much too simplistic to characterise its focus so narrowly. Philip French told how the Boultings, initially to the left politically, were frustrated by the restrictive influences of union behaviour on the film industry – one only has to dip into your average BBC documentary to hear similar tales from television – such that their establishment-pricking position emerged over a series of features and targets. French cogently corrected the general takeaway when he observed “The movie is in fact an attack on corrupt Britain”. Time Out’s Robert Murphy also understood the picture when he suggested “Accusations of union bashing are misplaced”. Indeed, it’s more a case of, to misquote Monty Python and the Holy Grail “See the corruption inherent in the system”. Unions are a consequence of (class and) capitalism, as much as communism is, and all are crucial to any efficiently enforced Hegelian dialectic (and cheerily, all inevitably lead to a global transhumanist drone state).

Pauline Kael makes for a good reference point with regard to the prevailing response at the time. Yes, I’m All Right Jack was a huge hit in Britain (after, ahem, Carry on Nurse, the most popular British picture at home that year), but its reviews were mixed. She noted English critics were commonly taking issue with the Boulting’s spikiness towards the target, such that “The only possible conclusion can be that it’s all right to see human folly on the right, but it’s not fair game if you find it on the left”. She went further than Murphy and French, however, in breaking down why it was the picture seemed to be getting such a reaction: “The big businessmen are the villains in the plot, but the film also shows the trade unionists as smug and self-centred, and though the satire of union practices is much more affectionate, it is so accurately aimed – and we are so unused to it – that it comes off much the better.

The Boultings (John directing this time, Roy producing) are simply targeting the wheels of industry here as they earlier did education (Lucky Jim), the legal system (Brothers in Law), the army (Private’s Progress), and later the church (Heavens Above!) In this case, the film is a direct sequel to Private’s Progress, with Ian Carmichael’s posh twit Stanley Windrush now out of the army – “In my days, the university man went into one of the learned professions, if he had any brains. If he hadn’t, it was either the Church or the army” – and trying to find a place in industry. Alan Hackney once again furnishes the screenplay, again based on his novel (1958’s Private Life).

Joining Windrush are the similarly demobbed Major Hitchcock (Terry-Thomas), now the personnel manager of Missiles Ltd, and rogues Bertram Tracepurcel (Dennis Price), Stanley’s uncle, and Stanley’s “pal” Sydney DeVere “Coxy” Cox (Richard Attenborough). Bertram’s now selling missiles to Arabs (the company is his), but in consort with Coxy, he plans to do so at artificially inflated prices (through manipulating the unions at Missiles Ltd into striking; Coxy’s company Union Jack Foundries will swoop in and fulfil the order, so providing a nice little earner for Cox, Tracepurcel and buyer’s rep Marne Maitland’s Mr Mohammed).

Capitalist doctrine had been deftly dealt with before this, of course, by Ealing in The Man in the White Suit, and there are intimations towards its nature as a self-perpetuating beast (the mantra “To market a commodity, it is necessary to export” is repeated during the picture; or as Richard Attenborough’s Coxy/Sydney DeVere Cox puts it “And don’t forget all that bunk about export or die”). But the Boultings’ net is wider than Mackendrick’s simple but devastating fable, since it is society itself (and those who control it) that edicts both sides of the coin, the yin and yang of the money makers and those who don’t want to be exploited by the exploiters (or as the movie would have it, those who want to exploit the exploiters).

Kael quotes George Bernard Shaw’s suggestion that “trade unionism would be the capitalism of the working class” and in I’m All Right Jack, it’s at the very end where we see perfectly how, despite overtly antagonistic goals, the various sides form a complete ecosystem (of course, there are many supplementary conversations to be had about the subsequent erosion of unions and the negative impact on industries, communities and livelihoods, but that doesn’t need to disqualify the essential “See the corruption inherent in the system” point).

Windrush has no intention of changing anything, unlike Sidney Stratton in The Man in the White Suit or Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He’s genuine, sincere, affable, gullible and entirely weak willed; he is not a man of principles. Rather, he is perfectly ready to go with the flow, be that moving one crate at a time or breaking the picket because Aunt Dolly (Margaret Rutherford) tells him to: “I can’t let my family down”.

However, even Stanley gets wise eventually, announcing as much during a TV debate chaired by Malcolm Muggeridge (now best known for disagreeing with Michael Palin and John Cleese regarding Life of Brian). In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, this proved to be a rousing moment of sincerity, appealing to Washington’s senators to be better than they are, with Smith eliciting praise and applause for his troubles. In I’m All Right Jack, the proceedings, in which Stanley first lays in to Kite and then his uncle, descend into violence when he empties Coxy’s bag of bribe money over the studio floor. And rather than being celebrated for his behaviour, he is publicly vilified, the Magistrate (Raymond Huntley) rallying behind the union and boss and affirming they have both been unfairly slandered.

Hitchcock: You’re a positive shower! A stinker of the first order!

As Kael put it, “Wherever the innocent here turns, he sees corruption, and when he tries to expose it, he is considered insane”. There is no justice for the honest man when he rounds on those who manipulate, deceive and conspire (although, the honest man never quite knows what’s best for him either, as Windrush, bound over to keep the peace for a year, discovers when he retreats to his father’s nudist colony; even nature(ism) puts him ill at ease, as he is last seen fleeing a gaggle of adoring and unadorned female tennis plays who want him to join in: “None of us are terribly hot, you know”).

Stanley’s prior perma-naivety (well, except when it comes to the appeal of Fred’s daughter Cynthia, in the appealing form of Liz Fraser), as blitheringly hapless as it is, is essential to I’m All Right Jack. He is required to go pathetically along with everything thrown his way with a silly grin on his face. And if he hadn’t done, if he’d been remotely savvy or shown any self-will or opinion at any earlier point, each and every position of those attempting to push him one way or the other would likely have fallen apart. The opening procession of botched job interviews leads his employment agency “seriously to doubt whether you and industry are compatible”; the only difference between Stanley and the rest of us is that we’re not quite as inveterately inept. We are, however, just as likely to go with the flow.

The film’s civvy street reflects Private’s Progress’s army in some respects. Officers (Tracepurcel, Hitchcock) are once again in positions of seniority. The ranks/workers once again want to bunk off. But between them is Fred Kite, believer in the glorious revolution and sporting an entirely uncoincidental Hitler moustache. Fred is dangerous because he believes in his cause. Well, he tells himself he does, accompanied by a mountain of persuasive texts like Decline of the Privileged Class and The Guilty Rich (“I must say, it is very heartening to have you intellectuals coming into the working-class movement like this” he greets Windrush). He’s keen to have Stanley read up on Mother Russia and how they run their factories (“However, I won’t spoil it if for you”), and while he’s never been there, he’d like to go (“All them corn fields and ballet in the evening”).

Fred Kite: It’s just that I don’t like to see our class behaving like the Gadarene swine.
Mrs Kite: Ere! You watch your language, Fred Kite. If you don’t mind.

But the actual rules he wields are as suspect as those of the employers. Stanley arrives without a union card, believing membership is optional (“No, it’s not compulsory, only you’ve got to join, you see”). When Hitchcock offers to get shot of him, Fred does the mental gymnastics that require him to ensure no ground is given to the controllers (“We do not and cannot accept the principal that incompetence justifies dismissal. That is victimisation”). It’s this very precisely established order that ensures demarcation, with no one trying too hard and the firm even retaining those who have been made redundant (in order to avert a strike, and as checkers, “but don’t expect them to check anything”; they play cards all day, except when a strike is called, at which point they down them).

Hitchcock: Windrush is the real problem. How do we get rid of the shower, and avoid a public stink?

Naturally, Fred is as vain and calculating as anyone else, keen to put Stanley up in order to hold an intellectual conversation and more than happy to do a deal with Hitchcock if it means restoring order. In this respect, while he is affronted at Stanley returning to work (“A Judas and fifth column in our midst”), it is the disruption to his home life that ultimately breaks the camel’s back. He is revealed as a fairly hopeless man, nothing when not propped up by his wife, as the increasingly squiffy and weary Hitchcock comes to realise (the priceless moment has the latter darning the domestically incontinent Kite’s holey socks). Hitchcock also has the most memorable measure of the man: “Kite? Absolute shower. Sort of chap who sleeps in his vest”.

Fred Kite: You whited sepulchre you!

The workers may be bone idle, but it has already been established that the companies are making a mint (via some of Stanley’s early prospects, including Detto and Fisko; as for hygiene standards, Stanley may vomit in biscuit mix, but we’ve already witnessed staff sneezing all over a tray of their comestibles). As if to emphasise that, while unions may be in their crosshairs, the essential way of things doesn’t change, the Boultons introduce the proceedings via a Sellers cameo as Sir John Kennaway, an old duffer and establishment bastion whose methods are now a thing of the past with the winning of the war (“With victory came a new age. And with a new age came a new spirit”). Tracepurcel and Coxy are still operating the same scams, Hitchcock is still the exasperated middle man, and chump Stanley still gets the blame. The Boultings are keen to make it known deceit is endemic. Tracepurcel tips his sales speech with the “knowledge that in supplying your country with arms, the missiles are making their own special contribution to the peace of the world”. Basil Dingham announces “As minister of labour, you can be sure that I will act. You can also be sure that I shall not interfere, that is, with those great principles which I deem to be at stake”; it’s a wonder the Boultings didn’t make a movie about ineffectual government or the civil service.

Aunt Dolly: You see, it’s quite unthinkable that a gentleman should go on strike.

Only the meeting of female minds appears to bridge the no-man’s land of class and politics. Mrs Kite (Irene Handl) receives a visit from Aunt Dolly (Rutherford) and they’re soon getting along famously, culminating in Mrs Kite leaving Fred to himself. Fraser is magnificent in, if not her movie debut, certainly her first significant role as the not so bright Cynthia (never mind, though; it’s all relative, as Stanley isn’t so bright either). “Are they your own teeth?” she asks Stanley, as they make out adjacent to a beatific fly tipping spot. Even before she’d played opposite Sid James, you can hear his RA-HA-HA when Fred announces “My daughter Cynthia. Works here, spindle polishing”. Appropriately, since they turned him down for a job, Cynthia never gets to give Stanley a product from their line after Fred throws him out (“What am I going to do with his suspenders?” she wails).

Hitchcock: We’ve got chaps here who could break out into a muck sweat merely by standing still!

The rest of the cast are note-perfect too. Price’s machinations are only outdone by Attenborough’s thoroughly invidious Coxy, who outright despises Stanley. Terry-Thomas gets only one scene with Carmichael this time, but he has a series of fine interactions with John Le Mesurier, and the aforementioned drink with Sellers (their third pairing in as many years, after The Naked Truth and Tom Thumb).

Also returning from Private’s Progress are Miles Malleson (as Stanley’s nudie dad), Le Mesurier (he’s a psychiatrist in that film, so it seems unlikely his time-and-motion-management man Waters is the same character), Victor Maddern and Kenneth Griffith (Dai Jones in both movies). Al Saxon sung the title track, the B-side to his Number 24 hit Only Sixteen that year.

I’m All Right Jack rightly won Best British Screenplay and Best British Actor (Sellers) at the BAFTAs, but wasn’t even nominated for Best British Film. Liz Fraser was pipped by Hayley Mills (for Tiger Bay) as Most Promising Newcomer (“And if you can’t get a BAFTA when you’re twelve, you needn’t bother” was Fraser’s pithy observation). She opined that being remembered for Carry Ons was “the bane of my life” (although Confessions of… and Adventures of… can’t have helped matters either). I’d always assumed the title had a comma (most film guides feature one), but it seems it only appeared in the trailer. There are few British comedies that achieve the rarefied quality of I’m All Right Jack, and fewer still that can match a script this sharp with a cast so perfect.



Popular posts from this blog

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.