Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Angry Silence (1961)

Richard Attenborough had been a memorably noxious capitalist in I'm All Right, Jack (1959), the Boulting Brothers' plague-on-both-your-houses satire of labour relations; a year later, he found himself on the other side of the management/worker divide in this engrossing, if somewhat hysterical, account of workplace conflict.
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Written and co-produced (with Attenborough) by Bryan Forbes as the first release of his production venture, Beaver Films, the film has more than a touch of On the Waterfront (US, 1954) about it, notably in the factory gates denouement. But the milieu is distinctly British, with the flavour of the emerging British New Wave, sharing its Northern industrial landscape with the likes of Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, released later the same year.
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The film's evocation of turn-of-the-1960s working-class life remains its strongest suit, particularly in the scenes on the factory floor (which, asSight and Sound's Penelope Houston commented, "looks like a place where something might really get made") and in the claustrophobic top-floor flat shared by Tom (Attenborough), his Italian wife Anna (Pier Angeli), their two kids and the lodger, the perpetually fence-sitting Joe (Michael Craig - also co-credited for the original story). Both Attenborough and Angeli bring real dignity to their roles, and their bewilderment in the face of Tom's unfair treatment at the hands of his colleagues is affecting.
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The film's politics, however, are less convincing. The script tries hard to inject some balance, making clear that the industrial action lacks official union support, and demonstrating that the attitude of the factory manager Martindale (Laurence Naismith) is every bit as callous and unprincipled as that of shop steward Connolly (Bernard Lee). But Forbes chooses not to make the workers' concerns clear - the only demand we hear is for more toilet roll - with the effect that we are unable to determine the justice of their grievances. Similarly, we are left entirely in the dark about the deeper motivations of either Alfred Burke's shady agent provocateur, Travers, or his unseen London cohorts. Most troubling is the film's representation of Curtis's fellow workers, who appear as little more than sheep, readily manipulated by the none-too-bright Connolly, who is in turn the puppet of the altogether shrewder Travers. The result is an unbalanced and ultimately unsatisfying film, though one which remains fascinating for the way it signals the growing anti-union paranoia of the following two decades.
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Published by


Volume 27, No.315, April 1960, page 49


Travers, a political agitator, comes to Martindale's, a factory in Melsham, and forms a works committee with Connolly, a hitherto unobtrusive employee, as mouthpiece. Connolly and Davis, the works' manager, are soon at loggerheads and an unofficial strike is called. Tom Curtis, a young family man, and a dozen others refuse to stop work, but calculated acts of violence quickly bring the others out. When the strike ends, Tom is sent to Coventry and even his lodger and best friend, Joe, ignores him. Travers suggests that Tom should be taught a stiffer lesson. Shortly afterwards, Tom's small son, failing to return home from school, is found by his mother shut in a lavatory, tarred and feathered. Travers now instigates another strike, and again Tom stands firm. This time he is worked over himself and ends up in hospital. On learning that Tom has lost an eye, Joe tracks down the culprit, a Teddy boy, beats him up and drags him back to a works meeting to confront the men with their own shame. Travers quietly leaves town.

The first film of a new production company, The Angry Silence bears striking witness to the effect Room at the Top has had on British cinema. One notes its forthright dialogue, contemporary awareness and air of controversy, its energy and its ambition. Too much ambition, perhaps: the film has several themes - mob law, TUC weakness, bad industrial relations, the right to dissent - whose admixture and thorough working out, possible in a novel, are less ideally suited to the cinema. To cover them all successfully would demand a grasp that is as yet beyond Bryan Forbes', the scriptwriter's, capacities.

To their credit, the producers, Forbes and Richard Attenborough, have taken evident pains to achieve a surface authenticity. The relationship between Tom and his wife well played by Pier Angeli) is convincing, and some of the incidental detail shows observation - Joe's failed seduction of a factory girl; the bored and utterly fatuous board-room director (Norman Shelley). But as the film proceeds, the hollow schematism of the script grows more apparent. With Tom's battle out in the open, the necessity to give his opponents equal dramatic weight becomes paramount. Yet they remain virtually unidentifiable: shadowy Communist agitator, managing director with an arbitrary mistrust of lone wolves, spineless works committee at the beck and call of a spokesman (Bernard Lee) about whom we, and apparently his fellows, know nothing other than that he is vaguely embittered.

What in fact seems to be emerging is a sort of Fritz Lang study in mob mentality (hero versus fate and a faceless society). It is the last section of the film, however, which most betrays a fundamental weakness in Guy Green's direction. Having already discouraged any attempt to reflect along the way, Green switches from brusque linking shots and shock effects (for instance, Joe is generally identified by a boot on a kick-starter) to the immediacy of arrant emotionalism. From the finding of Tom's son to the pursuit by motor-cycle, the battering of the Teddy boy and the final public expiation at the factory gates, the film's On the Waterfront reminiscences are unmistakable. But a last minute act of double violence cannot compensate for a tangible build-up of cumulative strain, just as the sudden dramatic emergence of four conveniently placed Teddy boys can be no substitute for an investigation into mob psychology - at this stage the film's most highlighted item of unfinished business. One suspects, in fact, that mob rule is the essential subject of the film. But there is really no knowing; neither cogent grasp nor, in the Lang manner, abstract orchestration. Evasiveness wins the day; belief is lost. A matter for genuine regret, because the eye for realism is there.

The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.

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