Michael Latimer and Sebastian Breaks are not, even by the standards of your average exploitation buff (if such a person exists), names that spring to mind when discussing great British cinema. Then again, like all the other instalments in the BFI’s continually intriguing Flipside series, Man Of Violence, better known in some territories as Moon, is not a typical ‘great British film’. If truth be known, or at least if my opinion be known, it’s not a great film in any sense of the word- ironic considering that Pete Walker is my all-time favourite director. Yet nor is it his ‘Achilles heel’, that particular honour being clinched by 1974’s Tiffany Jones. What we have here is a case of a film stuck uncomfortably between two stools: the cheaply-produced, quick-turnover sexploitation the director had hitherto made his name with, and the grittier, gore-drenched, ‘terror’ oeuvre he would become best known for shortly afterwards.
His reaction to the collapse of the ‘love generation’, which one might have seen coming as early as 1968, is clearly visible here in the grisly fates met by several characters and a feeling of implicit despondency which still lingers over the proceedings, no matter how many floral ties, tartan table-lamps and silk kimonos might be on offer. Thus, an early exchange between central character Moon (Latimer) and shady businessman/spy Nixon (Derek Aylward), which refers to “tawdry protection rackets” and “being Dean Martin’s scriptwriter”, hints that Walker somehow intends to parody Matt Helm (and therefore, by that same token, Flint and Bond) movies. Yet Man of Violence somehow comes across as more unrealistic than any of them. Maybe it’s the ludicrous over-acting the normally reserved and tasteful Maurice Kaufmann employs in the role of racketeer/gangster Grayson, complete with badly dubbed line-fluffing and full facial gurnings, or the numerous dolly-birds in which he is constantly draped (not that there’s anything wrong with that on principle- I’d welcome such a lifestyle tomorrow if offered). Mayhap it’s the daft close-up of Moon repeatedly driving his car back and forth very fast across a courtyard, stopping suddenly so Grayson’s henchman Hunt (Kenneth Hendel) will bang his head on the dash. It’s difficult to put your finger on, but somehow, these elements sit uneasily with the harsh tone Walker seemed to be aiming for.
Could it be, also, that the gay characters are so comedic they make Jules and Sandy seem restrained by comparison? Actually, I don’t think so. Bearing in mind, there was a lot of that behaviour around in British films and TV programmes back then, and despite what the PC revisionists might tell you, nobody (least of all the gay community) gave a shit- in fact, some of it was genuinely funny. And in any case, the device of making Moon bisexual, even if only to precipitate another bed scene, is one of the film’s more daring, commendable moments. No, the fault must lie with Walker’s own script, which attempts to construct a combined gangster and espionage-based plot without sufficiently understanding the ramifications of either, relying on a series of vagaries concerning corrupt governments, missing gold that may not even exist, military coups, strip joints acting as a front for money-laundering, and a property developer using the touring itinerary of a psychedelic beat combo we see but never hear to deliver contraband to Marrakesh.
At least I think that’s what we’re supposed to deduce from it all. Even our hero’s profession is vague- he describes himself as a ‘crook’, trying to make enough money to enable him to comfortably go straight, but his actual criminal activities- with the exception of spying on rival businessmen, driving around very fast and shooting at people- are never specifically alluded to. On the other hand, he looks great, dresses like an UberMod, frequents (like his creator) all the best London nightspots of the time, such as the Scotch Of St James, and has a seemingly infallible way with the girls, which grants him my seal of aesthetic approval if nothing else. And it’s actually with the girls that Walker succeeds in elevating the film above the mundane- as well as the usual gaggle of West End where-are-they-now hopefuls, we are provided with sympathetic female characters like the genuinely helpful Goose (Erika Raffael) and most importantly Angel Weston (Luan Peters).
The RADA-trained Latimer may have top-billing, and is undoubtedly a skilled actor, but approaches his starring role (one of only two in his career, the other being in Hammer’s less-than-spectacular Prehistoric Women) with a strange detachment which makes him harder to warm to than contemporaries like Martin Potter, Nicky Henson or Tom Adams. Then again, Walker always did like his heroes, from Eli Frome (Barry Evans in Die Screaming Marianne) to Bernard Cutler (Norman Eshley in House Of Mortal Sin) as ineffectual as possible. By default, this leaves Peters as the real star of this film, and the one we most empathise with, as she seems the only major player capable of seeing good in anyone and bringing out their best points. The downside is that her trusting altruism also gives way to gullibility and makes her easy prey for self-interested huckster Burgess (George Belbin). Initially a one-dimensional ‘tart’ in the employ of Grayson, over the course of 110 minutes we see her develop into a fully rounded human being, unusual for the time. She genuinely loves and cares for Moon, even when forced to be suspicious of him by outside conspirators, and even his blasé attitude towards money, gold, political matters and life itself doesn’t ultimately put her off- something which makes their fates (of which I shall divulge no more) in the final reel all the more upsetting. Still, that was Walker for you- why deliver a happy resolution when a harsh jolt of reality (as opposed to realism, a cinematic movement he was happy to borrow from without being remotely interested in its objectives) will do?
Also, in spite of her “ditsy blonde” appearance (which led to much typecasting) Peters was/is a fine actress, capable of both restraint and unbridled emotion (although this script offers little opportunity for the latter) and always able to convince: as such, she outshines the majority of the better-known cast in what was still a relatively early role for her. Derek Aylward is fine, but his characterisation offers little change from his performances in three previous Walker films: Kenneth Hendel, with his trademark comb-forward, makes a suitably slimy thug, but would have to wait six months for Die Screaming, Marianne before he was allowed to show his full strength. If there is another standout performance here, it’s from the ever-excellent Derek Francis as the profligate, self-serving business entrepreneur Sam Bryant: strangely, “Sam” was also the name of his similarly bent character in the Thriller episode Murder Motel five years later. Bryant is a hybrid of various corrupt businessmen, of the type often previously played by James Robertson Justice, Kynaston Reeves, Felix Aylmer and James Hayter, although in execution, as has been noted before, he bears uncanny similarities to disgraced entrepreneur/developer Robert Paulson, whose cost-cutting schemes resulted in poor housing, urban decay and social schism across Northern England. Here, Walker could be seen to be making the “social commentary” he has often denied- with every film from Cool It Carol! attacking one bon mot or another, yet with the cynical eye of a self-avowed capitalist and conservative.
That is, of course, if he is actually either- with his reputation for ‘making mischief’, I wouldn’t be surprised if such proclamations are actually a little dig at the intelligentsia he so obviously despises, and good on him if they are. Digging at the sleaze below Britain’s respectable surface, and replacing the veneer with its implicit layer of grime, has always been his strongest suit. Scriptwriting, on the other hand, with particular regard to dialogue, isn’t. It takes a while, but observation of his back catalogue in chronological order is ample proof that, even though one must admire his autodidactic approach on principle, he only made truly great films with help from outside writers, such as Alfred Shaughnessy, Murray Smith or David McGillivray. When left to handle everything alone, he often flounders on the writing front, resulting in stilted conversation and plot turns that seem if not far-fetched then slightly long-winded and illogical. His moments of political incorrectness, which make no difference to me, may jar with some viewers, although I’d hasten to say that if such stuff genuinely bothers you, you’ll never be a true exploitation fan, in the same way that somebody with a morbid fear of blood probably won’t watch too many vampire flicks.
His physical direction and photography, on the other hand, cannot be faulted- and it is also thanks to these skills that MOV holds the viewer’s attention and holds up to repeat screenings. Therefore it’s good to see the crisp restoration job Flipside have managed, making everything, from the multicoloured murals on Flossie’s van, to the dusty, melancholy pinks of the North African skyline right down to the subtly placed doorsign reading “If you don’t swing then please don’t ring”, stand out and grab your attention.
The Big Switch, released as a B-feature three years earlier, is similar in appearance but slightly different in tone. This time the less distinguished (but actually more convincing) Sebastian Breaks takes the lead as wide-boy John Carter (no, not the one from the Ivy League) who finds himself up to his knees in skulduggery, intrigue, guns and girls- all engineered by, guess who, Derek Aylward again. Walker’s fondness for this character actor, regarded as a veteran even then in his forties and usually cast as a small time hood or shady official, has never been fully explained- but his omnipresence is enough to suggest he carried considerable clout, warranting appearances in all his films from I Like Birds to Man of Violence. Perhaps he provides a last, fading vestige of theatrical glamour in an oeuvre that becomes increasingly world-weary from around the time of Carol onwards? Notes from long-time collaborator David McGillivray suggest Walker was simply a poor judge of character who made several erroneous choices, but half the fascination his work generates today stems from its usage of these otherwise neglected (and therefore by definition intriguing) actors. The other half, of course, seem primarily drawn by his pop-culture connections (Jess Conrad, John Kongos, Jack Jones, Christopher Sandford) and as such there’s a treat in store for fans of psych and garage rock in the shape of a cameo from Timebox (later known as Patto), the band who donated both John Halsey and Ollie Halsall to the Rutles, and whose cover of the Four Seasons’ ‘Beggin’ (recently sampled into some shite dance mix or other) is an all-time Mod dancefloor classic.
Once more, the restoration job is technically excellent, with additional turns from Jack Allen, Erika Raffael and (sharing top billing) the future Mrs Ralph Bates, Virginia Weatherall, elevating the film slightly out of the mundane: also of note is the wryly self-deprecating nature of Breaks’ character (described as ‘one whose peak came in the days of rock and roll, and who, at almost 30, might be slightly too old for Soho’), which can be read as a thinly-disguised synonym for the director himself. In short, it’s by no means a bad movie, and a fun way to spend a spare 60 minutes should you have it, but sadly, the length of time is just the problem, as for some strange reason, Flipside have elected to release the uncut print, generally known by the alternative title of Strip Poker, on Blu-ray only. Now, far be it from me to pass judgment on their reasoning (which a representative insists was not a cynical attempt to plug the newer format), but I think this is a foolhardy decision and one they will come to regret, and I’m obviously not alone, as recent Internet postings show it to have met with much disapproval.
Further infuriation is caused by the inclusion of a trailer for the uncut original on the DVD- which some might even suggest is tantamount to rubbing people’s faces in it, but again, there’s every chance the motives involved are sound and well-considered. What isn’t well considered, and therefore a mistake, is the inclusion in the package of sleeve notes by one Julian Petley, Professor of Screen Media at Brunel University, which attempt to provide a potted history of the Britsploitation genre whilst simultaneously criticising most of its best-loved works, including anything starring Robin Askwith. Talk about alienating your target audience!! Still, I suppose, such conduct was always good enough for Dennis Gifford…The balance is more than amply redressed, though, by McGillivray’s aforementioned contribution (always pithy, robust and worth a read), an interesting essay entitled The Dark Side Of The Moon (nice cross-cultural referencing) by novelist Cathi Unsworth, and the inclusion of several informative pages from the director himself.
As far as career overviews are concerned, it was undoubtedly the cynical, bitter Carol that cemented Walker’s distinctive style, resulting in the closest he had received at the time to positive notices, and providing the stepping stone to if not critical acclaim (something he never really received) then grudging acceptance of his ouvre. Whereas his nascent works, including The Big Switch, had been exercises in flash, Jack-the-lad Landahn Tahn (and Brighton) filmmaking seemingly conceived purely for the purpose of exciting/titillating the viewer and making some fast cash, subsequent efforts seemed to aim less at the crotch and more at the cerebral organs: is it possible therefore, from an auteurist’s perspective, to suggest that the earlier films were made in order to finance his subsequent, more personal projects? Maybe, but by those standards, Man Of Violence, which if truth be known is not (save for two particularly unpleasant deaths) a particularly violent film at all, falls uneasily between the two approaches, smashing you in the teeth with a rifle-butt one minute and dabbing the wound with rosewater and cheap foundation the next. It definitely doesn’t deserve the panning some IMDB posters have given it (‘man of inertia’ and so forth) but a classic? No way. One can, however, see why Flipside have chosen it (and to a lesser extent, The Big Switch) for release, as in their reportage of (and satirising of) world events and attitudes, they present, more than any of Walker’s other early works, a snapshot of a Britain which, despite attempts by several parties to revive it, is now sadly departed for good.
Until the big-budget all-star flop of House of the Long Shadows (1983), Walker had never taken a loss in his entire career: seeing no upswing in the country’s fortunes imminent, he has not returned to a filmmaking career since. At 70, he can no longer be considered the enfant terrible of British cinema, but it would be nice to think that this release- if handled correctly! – would earn him some retrospective acclaim from those all too eager to dispense kudos to dour, less exciting directors. Encouragingly, in the five years since I began writing about it, knowledge and appreciation of “Britsploitation”, as it is now known, has already increased twofold- although it’s only when we understand just how well-known the Brighton-born filmmaker was back in the Seventies, as much for his archetypal ‘swinging’ Chelsea lifestyle as his work, that it also becomes apparent how direly in need we are today of such a personality. He may claim, as do Peters, Latimer and Weatherall, to be ‘retired’ these days, but like all of them, he’s still out there somewhere, and as long as he remains, even in dormant form, so by association will the idea of a Britain inhabited by debonair dandies and fluffy, flirtatious females. I’ll see you in The Speakeasy for drinkies at seven, and it’s your round.