Dir: Joseph “Chuck” Despins & William Dumaresq 1971/1975
I think it’s fair to say that I approached this dual-film release, which stands as BFI Flipside’s most unusual and obscurest offering to date, with a certain amount of trepidation and caution. Not that I’m a cautious film-viewer: I speak as someone who will sit through either any old trash, the most pretentious art wank, or the most deeply violent and transgressive shock material ever, with an open mind.
But although the online synopses made them sound like the type of films that would be just up my alley (every pun intended), I was still a little wary of approaching Duffer and The Moon Over The Alley for one simple reason: I had never heard of them before. And when it comes to British cult cinema, there aren’t many titles you can say that about. However, having now watched both, I can tell you I’m suitably disturbed by one and pleasantly surprised by the other….
So, what are they exactly? Are they amateur productions? To some people, the answer is “maybe”, but not to me. For one thing, they’re both shot beautifully by a trained professional whose full-time job was as an editor at the BBC: secondly, though unknown performers grace the cast lists of both, at least one of them features trained actors whose careers both preceded and succeeded the films’ release. More importantly, The Moon Over The Alley was a specially-funded BFI Film Board feature, and even though forgotten (and, some would even venture, buried) by that institute for decades afterwards, it bears all the hallmarks of a film crafted with the same care and patience lavished by major studios on higher-budget works. The added bonus, one would suppose, being the artistic freedom granted by its producers to its directors, something a bigger company may have not allowed.
Though outwardly different in mood and style, both films have more in common than just the name on the director’s chair. Both are lensed in black and white (presumably for budgetary reasons rather than as part of any purported artistic statement), both are set in the then-crumbling, then-affordable (yes, THAT long ago!) environs of London’s Ladbroke Grove, Westbourne Park and North Kensington districts, and both bear the stamp of a soundtrack by Hair composer Galt McDermot. The most obvious distinction is that while Duffer is a mood piece boasting an unusual collage of post-dubbed narration and sound treatment rather than dialogue (again, budgetary) set to a sparse piano and synth score, The Moon Over The Alley is the exact opposite- a musical.
Not that one should expect any Hollywood, Broadway or even Lionel Bart-style shenanigans: the songs (lyrics penned by Dumaresq) unfold in a variety of classic 70s idioms from reggae through glam rock to folk, and happen in quite believable ways. A mother sings her baby to sleep, hippies in the Portobello Road jam and improvise with each other, a burgeoning pop singer freshly Arrived from the States plays his housemates some of his material, the landlady of the boarding house where most characters reside joins in with the radio whilst hoovering, and an Irishman searching Soho (in one of the few scenes not set in W10) for his prostitute girlfriend chances upon both a rock club where a Bowiesque androgyny performs onstage and a vaudevillian revue bar where he eventually locates her dancing. All perfectly plausible when you think about it, and a long way from the world of Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Loewe- though not too far from Bob Fosse’s realist treatment of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret (1971).
Even more to the point, each performer, even the amateurs found by Despins on the street, seems blessed with natural vocal ability (in the case of young Jamaican Sharon Forrester, extraordinary ability), and the songs are, both melodically and lyrically, very good indeed, showing that the Canadian-born, US-trained McDermot had fully absorbed the wide variety of music’s bubbling around multicultural London since his arrival on these shores in 1970. A cited reference point in the past has been Kinks mainman Ray Davies, who brought music-hall to rock and roll in the same way McDermot brought rock to theatre, not just with Hair but with the unfilmed Who The Murderer Was, which included among its cast members of progressive rockers Curved Air, but just as much is owed to the composer’s love of jazz and blues. The linking thread, therefore, is the ability of all genres to transcend emotional context from the warm, soothing and light-hearted to the dark, disturbing and scarifying, which is also the path taken by the film itself.
Duffer, on the other hand, is unpleasant and uneasy viewing right from the off. Granted, its opening images of its central protagonist- the otherwise anonymous Duffer himself- looking reflectively into the Thames over Hammersmith Bridge are more on the wistful side, and could set the scene for anything from a romantic comedy caper movie to a Swinging London drama, but once we’ve established, five minutes in, that the Chandleresque narration isn’t merely some brief prologue, and will continue throughout (interspersed with snapshots of “remembered” conversation between principal players), we move swiftly into the world of the terrible and the unbalanced. Duffer is a misfit, a friendless, unexplained orphan of about 18, whose time seems to be mainly spent pacing the ramshackle streets of West London (a prime location, even now after decades of yuppiedom, for those dwelling on the fringes of counterculture) and bouncing ping-pong fashion between cosy, intimate sexual encounters with a plump prostitute called Your Gracie, and a sadistic, submissive gay relationship with an insane artist called Louis Jack (played by Dumaresq himself, although he also voices Duffer’s thoughts, as taken from his original novel).
With the exception of occasions spent wandering down to the Thames anywhere between Hammersmith and Richmond for a good mope, he seems to have few other leisure activities in his life except the aforementioned sexual encounters, so from the audience’s point of view there’s very little respite, and very little comic relief either, save for close-ups of the rubber monkey on a string which slides down Your Gracie’s bedpost in time to the rhythm of her clients’ thrusts and measures their minutes spent with her, matched to the sound of a dribbling synthesiser chord. Like the constant on-off on-off indulgence of one who habitually drinks then smokes, as opposed to doing both simultaneously, no sooner has Duffer indulged his need for love (and some might say motherly affection) from his female companion than he’s back at his male paramour’s digs again, with each encounter more warped and twisted than the last.
If I may quantify this: slapping one’s partner about in consensual, playful S&M-related activity is fine, but Louis Jack, even if he genuinely does love Duffer (and there’s more than enough evidence to suggest the feeling is mutual) takes it to the next level by hurting and beating his charge in a manner that doesn’t seem too enjoyable for either party. Such activities, though, are comparatively small potatoes compared to what follows, with the boy subjected to such ritualised, almost sigilistic humiliations as being covered in worms, having fag ends stubbed out on him (OK, fair enough, it worked for Jimmy Dean, but he was hardly sane either) and most memorably, “getting pregnant” by his deranged lover.
This last does not signify, by the way, a sidestep into the realms of fantasy for Despins and Dumaresq: the “pregnancy” exists purely in Louis Jack’s imagination. But potential classification as a genre picture does arrive in the form of the genuine unpleasantness that follows, as in order to perpetuate the illusion, Duffer steals either a dolly from a passing child with a pram or an actual child from a passing mother, and shoves it up his jumper. Because the true nature of the incident is never confirmed, with an unpleasant later scene involving the “burial” of the baby in a nearby bin, eerily echoing Alistair Reid’s Something To Hide the same year, also presented ambiguously, we are left with an unpleasant, scratchy sensation best described as akin to feeling someone pull at our innards, and it’s these elements which push Duffer across that oft-discussed line between arthouse and horror cinema.
I’m sure that such a description would be the last thing the film’s creators had in mind, and I can’t imagine Hammer aficionados adapting easily to its turbulent, monochrome world, but the horror is there, not just in the violence of the artist’s relationship with the boy, but in several “nightmare sequences” involving random encounters with a nameless, bearded apparition of a man, filmed in a “black street” which may well have been the former Rillington Place. As with Lewis John Carlino and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (1976) horror status comes to Duffer accidentally, and is awarded after the fact, but was always there in the original novel’s subject matter if you knew where to look.
Conversely, the very essence of British film’s greatest period (1945-85) was always its ability to straddle boundaries and create indefinable, unclassifiable works, even within the context of something as outwardly simple as a horror or sex film, and this is no exception. Yet for all that, it has to be said that Duffer is not a film I will return to that often. Disquiet and unease aside, its splice-n-collage, cut-n-paste vocal track (which, let’s be honest, doesn’t differ that much from those used in potboilers like The Creeping Terror or Beast Of Yucca Flats) can be heavy going, with Dumaresq’s bizarre mixture of accents (French-Canadian but a naturalised Londoner for several years) an acquired taste, and despite fine performances from all involved, and it has to be stressed, superb photography, there is an air of slight pretension about the project which I don’t much care for.
Yet for all that, the film still retains an ability to fascinate, not least of all due to the actor actually playing Duffer, one Kit Gleave, of whom little is known: practically no information is disclosed by Despins in his extensive (and it has to be said, otherwise very rewarding) sleevenotes, and his IMDB entry would seem to suggest that this was his only filmed performance. So who was he? Where did he come from? More to the point, where is he now? Is he still alive, and if so, is he even aware of this DVD? Is he happily married somewhere with a normal job, retired, or living in the very obscurity and poverty the film depicts? Is he, possibly, considering the nature of the script, a genuine gay man, now dwelling peacefully with a partner who is (hopefully) the complete opposite of Louis Jack? Maybe he’ll turn up at the NFT for a screening. Who can tell? But for this reason alone if no other, Duffer wins brownie points in the cult stakes.
The Moon Over The Alley, while just as obscure, I would gleefully watch again and again, despite several faults I will shortly allude to. Not just because it’s a happier film: it just seems, all angles considered, that this was the fruition of the concept for which Duffer, though thematically different, was the dry run. One key factor in this may be the employment (in the later film) of the experienced Peter Hannan as photographer: his usage of black and white is imaginative and innovative, not just in terms of shade but with regard to arrangement of sets, makeup and costume, and he really makes the buildings and environs of Portobello Road and Elgin Crescent come alive.
There’s also scrupulous attention to detail: the teenage Nellie Tudge (Lesley Roach) sleeps in a bedroom adorned with posters of Roy Wood, while her first love Ronnie Gusset (a nascent Patrick Murray, who will probably be the most familiar face to viewers, as he later found regular employ as hapless rudeboy Mickey Pearce in Only Fools And Horses) sticks pictures of Bobby Moore to his mirror. Closeups of popular 70s foodstuffs are much in evidence, and shots of the Dog Shop (and thus the Frenz and IT offices above it) also occasionally hove into view, cementing once again the ever-important link between the world of Brit cinema and psychedelic/progressive rock music. As a further aside of this nature, it’s interesting to note that Despins himself was involved as far back as 1965 with a local literary group that also included future Hawkwind collaborator and Final Programme author Michael Moorcock.
On the minus side, despite its attempts to tie its numerous strands together via the device of two vagrants (a simple young man and an elderly woman, possibly his mother) who live outside in the alley itself and comment, Shakespeare-style, on proceedings, and despite the growing subtext of urban violence inflicted on several characters (including a classic “dirty old man”) by a gang of shadow-dwelling proto-chavs, the story still seems at times like a series of loosely connected episodic vignettes rather than a unified whole. I’m not sure, either, whether the deus ex machina of having the Borough Council pull down the houses in the Alley and replace them with concrete towerblocks, as displayed in the final shot, acts as a suitable conclusion, as it means several stories, not least that of troubled Irish barman Jack (Sean Caffrey, another known character actor) come to an abrupt end without resolution.
Then again, life is like that sometimes, so maybe it does work. Even as I write, Lewisham Council are threatening to pull down the Excalibur Estate in nearby Catford, Europe’s largest remaining village of WWII prefabs and a site of great historical importance, not to mention home to 187 families: if the demolition goes ahead, their stories will come to as an abrupt end. Therefore, because The Moon Over The Alley is, to my knowledge, one of the earliest films to tackle the concept of “disappearing London” and the transience of life for many of those who live in it, its release could not be better timed. It also implies that the co-operative cultural diversity that is essential to a small community is actually anathema to the “sustainable community” proposed by capitalist developers in order to cram every district as full of as many consumers and rent-payers as possible.
Thus, the inhabitants of Bertha Gusset’s boarding house juxtapose with each other nicely, but refreshingly, the film makes no concession whatsoever to PC preaching, with even a slight spot of victimisation by the police over and done with in a day and no lasting damage incurred. Whether or not this is realistic is a moot point (within three years the Southall riots and the brutal “murder” of Liddle Towers by police officers would paint a different picture entirely) but it definitely adds to the film’s naturalistic beauty, even taking into account its sudden slide into tragedy 85 minutes in. Eagle-eyed viewers, however, will have suspected something dark was going to happen eventually, not least of all from the recurrent use of the title-song’s melancholy organ intro. To a generation like mine, who grew up knowing full well that the Paul McCartney version of the Crossroads theme was only played when something sad happened in the programme, it makes perfect sense….
Sadly, though receptions were positive (particularly from the notoriously hard-to-please Alexander Walker, who declared it a masterpiece) success eluded the picture and for reasons undisclosed the two Canadians never worked together again. Despins made only one more feature, an early Channel 4 mystery thriller entitled The Disappearance Of Harry (1982) before moving into the more financially lucrative world of teaching film and TV rather than directing it, and eventually retiring to France where he now resides: Dumaresq wrote and published several novels, short stories and poems before his death from cancer in 1998. Such is the uncertain path of the auteur, and if one is honest, I’m not sure who will buy this DVD in 2011 either: I would imagine that most who want to see it work, like myself, in the industry and will have therefore blagged a free review copy. But from an aficionado’s point of view, it’s great to see it out there in an attractive package.
For once, there are no extra features, but two full-length movies on one disc for you dosh isn’t bad going really: if Flipside let themselves down anywhere, it’s in, once again, the liner notes. This time it’s Stephen Thrower’s turn to ramble and dissemble, and while his love for, and extensive knowledge of, both films is undeniable, his writing is far from the “objectivity” the BFI claim to strive for, particularly with reference to Duffer, which he states is “not an easy sell to gay viewers” due to its presentation of homosexual sex as sadistic and painful and heterosexual intercourse as warm and comfy.
Don’t beat about the bush by purporting to speak for your entire community Steve, you mean it isn’t an easy sell to you personally. Most of my gay friends wouldn’t give a shit. And while we’re on the subject, I don’t know what your definition of warm and comfy is, but speaking as a straight man, I myself would find very little solace in spending my time in a dingy, albeit feather-quilted and brightly lit, basement flat with an overweight hooker who claims that she was “born with too much jelly”, even though I’d like to commend Erna May, who plays both Your Gracie and Bertha Gusset, for her superb performances. And if some of the surnames in The Moon Over The Alley do resonate with the sound of TV sketch shows and sitcoms, so what? Many people enjoy them, and I’m certain that should the disc sell on either DVD or Blu-ray, several viewers will take pleasure in noticing the distinctive Norman Mitchell, recognisable as “Jack the barman” in Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, in the role of Joe Tudge.
On a technical level, it’s a dream, with remastering techniques, as usual, of the highest quality. Every single nuance of the monochrome bursts with colour, and as befits the essentially realist ideals of the filmmakers, both movies are presented in their original 1:33:1 ratio, which in Duffer aptly creates the effect of “found footage” or voyeuristic reportage of someone’s private life, and in Moon an ongoing snapshot of a community in development. Widescreen would have been unnecessary- after all, nobody sees in that format, and Despins and Dumaresq’s intent was, as laid out in their original proposal reprinted here, to display London (in the latter picture at least) exactly as they saw it, an aim in which I think they at least partially succeeded.
In the meantime, while deciding whether or not to shell out your hard-earned, have a taster of the title song’s evocative lyrics, courtesy of Sybil (Doris Fishwick):
“The moon over the alley casts a great shadow,
The moon over the alley makes me sad-o….”
You won’t be able to get it out of your head for weeks. I promise.