Criterion Corner: Three Films by Ronald Neame

Andrew reviews three Ronald Neame films: The Horse's Mouth, Tunes of Glory, and Hopscotch.

British director Ronald Neame was one of the most esteemed and multi talented individuals to emerge from the United Kingdom. Considered by some to be the British Robert Wise, Neame began as a cinematographer by providing assistant work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail and garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects on the British war drama One of Our Aircraft is Missing. Neame eventually started his own production company, Cineguild, and formed a creative partnership with the distinguished director David Lean. During his collaboration with the eventual director of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Neame wrote and produced such Lean classics as Brief Encounter and the earliest film adaptations of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, earning two screenwriting Academy Award nominations for both. Soon Neame’s wide range of experience in the film industry lent itself to film direction, including the production of such classics as Judy Garland’s final film I Could Go on Singing, the Academy Award winning Maggie Smith film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Albert Finney’s musical version of Scrooge, and Irwin Allen’s disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure. Many modern film goers are not aware that Alec Guinness and Walter Matthau provided some of their best and most entertaining work with the skillful director for hire. Having met Guinness on David Lean’s Charles Dickens films, Neame and Guinness formed a great actor-director team on both The Horse’s Mouth and Tunes of Glory. Among Neame’s final films was the caper comedy Hopscotch, which sported a cool and hilarious Matthau in top form. Before Neame’s untimely death at the age of 95 due to complications from a fall, the gifted director supervised three Criterion releases of arguably his finest films, The Horse’s Mouth, Tunes of Glory, and Hopscotch. With this week’s latest Criterion Corner, The Movie Sleuth takes an in-depth look at these three underrated gems.

The Horse’s Mouth (1958 – directed by Ronald Neame)
Gulley Jimson (Alec Guinness) is at once a gifted, respectable British artist as well a cantankerous trouble making alcoholic. Crusty, self-aggrandizing and self-loathing in equal measure, Jimson wanders the dank city streets of London before occasionally returning to his squalid yacht serving as a makeshift studio, struggling to pay off old debts and achieve unfettered creative expression.  Everyone wants a piece of Jimson’s genius, until they actually have to deal with his obnoxious and destructive behavior firsthand. Accompanied by his elder lady friend Coker (Kay Walsh) and an idealistic young pupil named Nosey (Mike Morgan), Jimson seeks his ultimate canvas at any cost irrespective of who he has to step on.

A screwball comedy of impish behavior and a serious minded portrait of an artist in existential crisis, The Horse’s Mouth is best remembered as Alec Guinness’ funniest and most energized performance of his illustrious career. Scruffy in appearance with a gruff, raspy voice that would make Burgess Meredith’s Rocky trainer blush, Guinness’ agitator is the epitome of starving artists who neither make ends meet nor satisfy their aesthetic ambitions. Adapted from Joyce Cary’s novel through an Academy Award nominated screenplay by Guinness himself, The Horse’s Mouth is a bittersweet character study of what it means to be an artist and how all involved in his creative life are affected.  Coker, for instance, more than goes out on a limb for Jimson’s favor with little gratitude or recompense in return. So focused is Jimson’s creative impulse that he’s not particularly bothered by a cinder block crashing through a client’s floor. Visually the film posits London’s old gray skies and pavement in direct contrast with later scenes of a painting coming together with lush, vibrant colors and brushstrokes.       

A whimsical ode to the creative process and all the folderol brewed in its wake, The Horse’s Mouth is as hilarious and oddly moving as its misfit visionary. People love the work but can’t stand the man any more than he can stand himself. It goes without saying the film is essentially Alec Guinness’ finest hour as an actor with the freedom of screenwriting to make the self- centered trickster a lovable and instantly relatable chum. The search for perfection will always eat away at Jimson but through all the difficulty and frustration, at the end of the day a glimpse into all a canvas has to offer is enough.  One of the genuinely life affirming British comedies of all time with top notch Guinness!

8/10 - Andrew Kotwicki

Tunes of Glory (1960 – directed by Ronald Neame)

Considered by Alec Guinness to be his very best performance as an actor, Tunes of Glory tells the story of Major Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) who is stationed in a Scottish Highland regimental during the winter post WWII. Sinclair, a boisterous drunkard, has been with his battalion from the very beginning, having shared many battles together. Nearing the end of his term as Commanding Officer, he is superseded by the prim and proper Lieutenant Colonel Basil Barrow (John Mills), who runs a tighter shift and begins to enforce fastidious disciplinary actions much to the chagrin of the battalion. Soon Sinclair and Barrow lock horns concerning authority over the men, one that threatens to spill over into violence and psychological breakdown.
A powerful postwar drama and touching human story about honor and respect, Ronald Neame’s Tunes of Glory takes a profound look at military conduct, post-traumatic stress disorder, leadership and whether or not glory is necessarily dictated by our actions. Working from an Academy Award nominated screenplay adapted by James Kennaway from his own novel, Tunes of Glory seems to suggest the Second World War hasn’t ended for those who participated in it and is still being fought behind closed doors through dialogue and reprimand. Largely set within the Stirling Castle in Scotland amid the snowy terrain, the film is an ensemble piece featuring the silver screen debut of Susannah York, yet is primarily driven by the affecting performances of its two leads, Guinness and Mills. Made only two years after The Horse’s Mouth, Guinness’ chameleonic transformation from the raspy throated and scruffy painter Gulley Jimson to the refined and stately Major Sinclair is a startling revelation of the man’s uncharted acting abilities. Anchoring Guinness’ prowess is the clean and fastidious anxiety of John Mills as Barrow, a man who believes strongly in the military but doesn’t know how to exercise his new position of authority.  

Unlike other PTSD postwar dramas depicting men struggling to cope with the horrors they experienced, Tunes of Glory presents a scenario where respect and a lack thereof for one’s contributions to the war effort can be more damaging to one’s psyche than any wartime traumas combined. It also begs the question whether or not honor or glory is remembered by our actions or the effect of our personalities. Soldiers don’t like or take Barrow seriously for his pettiness but also fail to recognize the man as a victim with wartime experiences not unlike their own. Much like post-WWII soldiers who came back from the war only to face public scoffing and scorn, it’s only a matter of time before those who see no light at the end of the tunnel for their unrewarded endurance begin to crack at the seams.    

8/10 - Andrew Kotwicki

Hopscotch (1980 – directed by Ronald Neame)

Late into Ronald Neame’s spy caper comedy Hopscotch, the film’s comic hero and CIA agent Kendig (Walter Matthau in top form) phones his colleagues who are scrambling to arrest him for unveiling embarrassing sensitive information after being relegated to a desk job by his egotistical, inexperienced and trigger happy superior, Myerson (Ned Beatty). Attempting with futility to cap the massive confidentiality leak, an agent asks Kendig what he thinks he’s trying to prove, to which he replies, “I’m not trying to prove anything, I’m just trying to have some fun.”  Truer words weren’t spoken by less than the film’s director in what ultimately proves to be a playful little lark where we get to watch a master gleefully toy away with arrogant wannabes now desperately trying to catch one of their own. Few CIA thrillers happen to be whimsical comedies where the joy comes from seeing how Kendig outsmarts those who have wronged him and then some.
Originally passing on the project until each gifted talent got wind of one another’s interest, Neame’s splendid direction of Brian Garfield’s novel, coupled with Walter Matthau’s comic persona, is a match made in heaven. Almost completely an actor’s movie, those only used to seeing Matthau from The Odd Couple or Grumpy Old Men are in for a surprise with the confident, cool Kendig who doesn’t know when to stop turning the very foundation he worked all his life for upside down.  Accompanying Kendig on his spree of humiliating his superiors is fellow agent Isobel (Glenda Jackson), serving as both ally and equal. The dynamic duo wouldn’t have reason to create such chaos and upheaval for the agency they gave their lives for without Ned Beatty as the pompous jerk Myerson whose only outlet for one clever defeat after another is to kick and scream. When we’re not caught up in the plot, Hopscotch provides a scenic world travelogue ranging from Bermuda to Germany, England to America, Russia to France and so on. It’s worth mentioning that the Oktoberfest glimpsed in the film’s opening isn’t staged and by luck fell into the filmmaker’s hands.

Pure escapist fun, and among the few cat and mouse thriller comedies where clever wit instead of violence is used as a weapon, Hopscotch is a good old fashioned time at the movies and supremely underrated entertainment. While a genre film not necessarily on par with Neame’s earlier features, it doesn’t aspire to be on those movies’ caliber either. Much like its impishly mischievous hero, giddy on hacking the carefully guarded institutions quicker to the gun than genius, Hopscotch delights in Kendig’s almost slapstick trouble making he causes for those who have slighted him. It doesn’t so much matter that Kendig is here to outsmart and reveal his enemies as buffoons as how he sets them up to fall. Just before we think we know what Kendig is really up to, Hopscotch manages to surprise us as its titular trickster puts another one over his adversaries in increasingly hilarious ways.  In other words, this is getting better by the minute!

7/10 - Andrew Kotwicki