A twanging guitar, a damp forest (could only be Britain, folks) and some brown dilapidated buildings- is it a Pete Walker movie? A Ray Selfe-helmed sexploitation mondo travelogue? No, it’s Lindsay Shonteff’s very own CLEGG. Bringing a whole new dimension to the words ‘cheap’ and ‘low budget’, this extremely enjoyable and fast-paced, grimy private eye thriller from 1968 is the most recent addition to the list of Shonteff films I have seen. Admittedly I haven’t seen many others (I think NIGHT AFTER NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, DEVIL DOLL and NO.1 OF THE SECRET SERVICE just about cover it) but it’s not been for the want of trying.
Sadly, the principal reason we are able to see these films now is due to the death of their creator, and the fact that his son, Lindsay Shonteff Jr, has uploaded them all to the internet for commercial download. Otherwise, I might have been forgiven for thinking that CLEGG had been lost forever…I can’t remember the last time it turned up on television, but I know I was very young and not allowed to stay up to watch it. Yeah, that long ago!!
The story is fairly easy to follow- Harry Clegg (Gilbert Wynne, Shonteff’s principal leading man of the time) is a down-at-heel, raddled (yet somehow irresistible to women) disgraced ex-copper now operating as a private ‘tec around various parts of London. Sadly, he doesn’t appear to be that good at his job, or at least not that discerning about his choice of employer, as he spends half the film getting beaten up and the other half not getting paid a penny. Such circumstances, at least as we are led to believe in retrospect, went very much with the territory for seedy 1960s crime fighters- not that Clegg is in reality any less of a criminal than his adversaries. God knows where the bullets and petrol came from then, but they always seemed to have enough and our Harry is no exception- although admittedly he doesn’t always restrict himself to driving his own car…
In true Chandler style, he relates the story to us via constant narration, which, although Wynne has fine diction and delivery, can get a bit wearisome after a while due to the messiness of much of the written dialogue. I guess they had to knock these out at a fairly rapid pace to ensure quota turnover, and that doesn’t leave much time for strenuous rewrites or exhaustive editing, especially when you’re also directing and producing the damn thing (Shonteff uses the scriptwriting nom de plume “Lewis J Hagleton” here, a relative of “Lewis J Force”, the equally shady director of NIGHT AFTER NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, but everyone knows it’s him). Ah well, that’s half the fascination behind such films, I suppose: if we want sheer perfection, there’s always the Powell and Pressburger box sets.
It’s not like the narration is there to cover gaps due to the paucity of the budget, either: everything Clegg tells us, we either see or have already seen. Nevertheless, some amusement may be derived from such dialogue as “I thought Lips Louie and Charlie The Chin were basically nice people, but they’d been influenced by the violence in today’s films” or things along the lines of “Three days’ work and not one penny earned, and if I didn’t keep my client alive then he’d be dead” OK, he doesn’t say exactly the latter, but as damn near as. Not that you mind by this point, as somehow the whole affair does seem to envelop you.
There’s all the touches one would expect from a late 1960s crime film: shots of grim yet groovy London, people endlessly smoking (it was good for you back then), lots of Vauxhalls, Granadas and Humber Supersnipes speeding about, people with dodgy moustaches looking shifty, and beautiful girls (some revelling in such flattering monikers as ‘Suzy The Slag’) by the dozen, including a whole coterie of them in identical dresses secreted in a country mansion with a very camp man sucking lollipops (them, not him).
There’s also a plot, believe it or not, concerning a group of very rich men, all somehow linked to the framing of another not-so-rich man (his widow lives on…wait for it…a caaaahncil estate), who are in turn being bumped off after being sent greeting cards informing them that they will die soon. It’s fairly easy to figure out, and in some ways it seems Shonteff has deliberately tried to convolute a very simple premise in order to pad it out to 85 minutes, but a little extraneous padding is always to be executed in a low-budget exploitation actioner, and if you don’t know that, then you’re probably watching the wrong kind of film. Where this actually starts to annoy is in the amount of unnecessary ‘shot from car window’ sequences we see- all soundtracked by the same bloody music.
If there’s one area where the low budget nature of the film betrays itself, then it’s here. There is but one tune playing constantly throughout, the only variation being when it slows down from time to time, and although I’m a sucker for 60s crime themes and library tunes in general, to hear it playing CONSTANTLY for almost the duration of the entire picture is a bit much. I mean, I’ve only seen the film once, and already I know the theme better than I know songs by the Kinks I’ve owned for decades!! Talk about drilling it in. I wonder if it came out as a single? Mind you, I’d probably play it as a DJ…
There’s more than one fantastic car chase sequence (always a staple of this subgenre) and a quite fantastic ending involving what could have been an iconic image (that is, if anyone remembered the film) of the eponymous hero walking to camera firing off bullets into an oncoming car, getting his revenge at last. I think he eventually gets paid somehow as well, but I can’t remember. Oh yes, that’s it- he rifles through a dead client’s pocket. Mind you, wouldn’t we all?
CLEGG could well have made the pilot for a great series (I actually always believed that it had been made into one, until I was recently corrected)- with its ‘beautifully seedy’ images of the tail-end of Swinging London, it would have been a precursor of THE SWEENEY and CALLAN, and a contemporary of SPECIAL BRANCH and PUBLIC EYE, and in my mind, there was enough potential material in there to have occupied an hour-long weekly slot: under a TV aegis, it would have also benefited from some tighter scriptwriting.
Cinematically, although not fantastically photographed or staged, the whole feel does somewhat predate GET CARTER by two whole years, although whether or not Mike Hodges has ever saw it is as much your guess as it is mine. I bet Tarantino did though, and I wouldn’t like to bet that the creators of LIFE ON MARS/ASHES TO ASHES didn’t see it floating around some cable channel one lost evening. One can, on the other hand, derive satisfaction from knowing that most of the self-satisfied, smug, Weller-obsessed blokey- blokey types that quote dialogue from Hodges’ (admittedly excellent, but overplayed) Geordie behemoth in pubs at will and regard it as the pinnacle of British filmmaking have missed out on this one. I wouldn’t normally advocate elitism, but for once, exploitation and quota quickie lovers, take pleasure in being one step ahead. It doesn’t happen often.
As it is, Gilbert Wynne- who Shonteff used twice more in the ensuing 18 months, first as a similarly bedraggled cop in the super-seedy horrorthon NIGHT AFTER NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, and then as a leering road manager in the ”hippiesploitation” fave PERMISSIVE, remains one of the lost untapped heroes of British crimefighting, only to be remembered by a nostalgic cult audience who may not have even been born when the film was shown. He’s still working, on and off, but deserves more recognition. But to some of us, Harry Clegg, forever meandering his world of dingy rooms, thuggish yet camp dress designers, loose women, threadbare suits and Vauxhall Veloxi, will always be up there with Jordan, Craven, Regan,Carter, Callan and Marker. You slaaaaaaaags.