Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Stanley Baker: Britain's tough guy

Stanley Baker [1928 – 1976] is perhaps too little known now, having died at the young age of 49, but he was one of England’s more interesting leading men of the 1950s before branching into international cinema of the 60s and 70s. His place in the hierarchy is rather unusual – being the polar opposite of typical English leading men like Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More, Richard Todd or Jack Hawkins. He did though go into production (ZULU being his biggest hit) and was knighted in 1976.

Equally home playing villains, where his angular, taut features could be very useful, he was often cast in the 50s in war films and also featured in several biblical epics where he was often glowering in the background, as well as several police dramas and efficient thrillers, and also in several interesting European films before scoring big with his production of ZULU. Like Bogarde's, Baker's is one of the most prolific careers in English cinema; he too co-starred with a lot of those European ladies: Moreau, Vitti, Aimee, Seberg and also did 4 films for Losey.

Being Welsh of course he was a contemporary of Richard Burton – indeed the two Welsh young actors began together on the stage, but by the early 50s Burton was on his way to Hollywood. Baker’s early parts included roles in CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER in 1951, THE CRUEL SEA and THE RED BERET (both 1953) and as Morded in THE KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE. HELL BELOW ZERO features him as one of his early villians opposite Alan Ladd in the frozen wastes of Pinewood in this Hammond Innes adventure.

THE GOOD DIE YOUNG also in 1954 is an enjoyable, effective thriller where he, Richard Basehart and John Ireland are the gang led by Laurence Harvey in a heist movie which of course unravels – Margaret Leighton, Gloria Graham and a young Joan Collins watch from the sidelines and its efficiently directed by Lewis Gilbert.

He is the Earl of Richmond in Olivier’s RICHARD III and Achilles in Robert Wise’s very enjoyable HELEN OF TROY (’56) and Attalus in Rossen’s turgid ALEXANDER THE GREAT where Burton is an increasingly tiresome Alexander – essential though for those who like these 50s epics.

There was a television Mr Rochester in JANE EYRE, and he is good in another war film A HILL IN KOREA in 1956, and he has the lead in an engrossing motor racing drama CHECKPOINT with Anthony Steele.

HELL DRIVERS in 1957 is his first with director Cy Endfield and is a tough thriller with ex-con Baker joining a team of truck drivers – the fascinating cast of the time includes Patrick McGoohan, Herbert Lom, plus a young Sean Connery just starting out, and Sid James as a truck driver. [This was also interesting to see again recently and is also available as a 2 disk dvd with lots of extras, interviews with Baker, Endfield etc. Interestingly, future stars Connery, McGoohan and Robert Shaw  got early starts in Baker movies].

Sid is also on truck driver duties in the following one, CAMPBELL’S KINDOM, also 1957, one of my favourite Rank Organisation movies, from a Hammond Innes novel set in the Canadian rockies [but filmed in the Italian dolomites] where Stanley (aged all of 28) is the cartoon villain trying to do winsome Dirk Bogarde (then at the height of his “idol of the odeons” matinee idol status) out of his oil well inheritance. I enjoyed this as a kid, and still do now. Michael Craig, Barbara Murray and James Robertson Justice are sterling support. It may be movie-making by numbers but it works.

VIOLENT PLAYGROUND in 1958 finds him as a police detective on the trail of some juvenile delinquents, co-starring Anne Heywood. I have not seen SEA FURY, also in ’58 and with director Cy Endfield, a tough sea adventure. Robert Aldrich’s THE ANGRY HILLS in 1959 sees him co-starring with Robert Mitchum and the ill-fated Gia Scala, in this drama set in Greece during the war.

JET STORM also in 1959 is a delightfully dated airline drama with an all star cast of the time with Baker as the pilot and Richard Attenborough as the man with the bomb. Also on board are pop star Marty Wilde, Mai Zetterling, Sybil Thorndike, Elizabeth Sellars, Virginia Maskell, Diane Cilento and Harry Secombe!

Joseph Losey now featured Baker in two tense thrillers. BLIND DATE in 1959 is perfect with Baker as the detective, Hardy Kruger as the man on suspicion of murder, and Micheline Prestle as the mystery woman. This is followed by THE CRIMINAL in 1960, a very tough study of a mobster, Johnny Bannion (Baker), coping with life in prison. Its billed as: “the toughest film ever made in Britain” (well, until SCUM I dare say…) and features Jill Bennett among others. Its an under-rated Losey and deserves to be better known.

Another terrific British crime thriller is Val Guest’s HELL IS A CITY in 1960. The city is Manchester and Baker is the inspector on the trail of mobster John Crawford. Billie Whitelaw and Donald Pleasance are among the sterling support, as is typical bad girl Vanda Godsell. This could be the prototype for tv series such as Z-CARS which followed in the 60s and 70s.

Stanley is then among those scaling those GUNS OF NAVARONE one of the big hits of 1961 and a perennial action staple.

This is followed by another esoteric Losey feature, EVA – which has been too long unseen. Baker is the author being destructively obsessed about Jeanne Moreau in one of her best roles, and its all very Losey (2 versions of EVA are now available as a dvd: the cut released version and fuller Losey version). Another crime caper followed, A PRIZE OF ARMS in 1962, with Tom Bell, about a robbery on an army camp.

SODOM AND GOMORRAH is a prize entry in the biblical stakes in 1962 and it was a pleasure to finally see it last year. This is by Robert Aldrich – just before he went on to BABY JANE ! – and is probably the silliest, campest biblical of all. Stanley glowers as the brother of lesbian queen Anouk Aimee, as Lot (Stewart Granger in those side-whiskers!) leads his tribe to their promised land. Euro-starlet Scilla Gabel pouts, Helen of Troy herself (Rosanna Podesta) is one of the daughters, and a rather lack-lustre Pier Angeli as Lot’s wife gets turned into that pillar of salt as Sodom is wiped out by what looks like a nuclear bomb. Don’t know what happened to Gomorrah though ….

IN THE FRENCH STYLE is a charming entry in the American Girl in Paris stakes by Robert Parrish in 1963, from an Irwin Shaw story. Jean Seberg is quite charming here going from naïve young girl to sophisticated woman of affairs before giving it all up for domesticity with an American doctor (played by one of my favourite writers James Leo Herlihy, author of All Fall Down and Midnight Cowboy, among others). Stanley is one of her lovers so cue lots of meetings at airports and a decadent party that prefigures the one in DARLING.

ZULU was the big one in 1964, with Stanley as one of the producers and Cy Endfield directing – Joe Levine ensured it was a major hit, and this battle of Rorke’s Drift is still wowing them today. Great music (John Barry), great cast led by Stanley, and great excitement.

More African adventures in 1965 included DINGAKA and SANDS OF THE KALAHARI, another Baker-Endfield production, with Susannah York, Stuart Whitman and the ever dependable Harry Andrews. Stanley was also doing various television roles around this time, before another crime caper ROBBERY in 1967 by Peter Yates so expect some exciting chase sequences.

Then came Stanley’s 4th Losey film, the enduring ACCIDENT, where he is re-teamed with Bogarde (10 years after their Canadian adventure) as the Oxford dons competing over the very blank European aristocrat Jacqueline Sassard (Romy Schneider was meant to do this role and would have made her a real sexual tease). It’s a Harold Pinter script effortlessly directed by Losey with a terrific cast including young Michael York, Vivien Merchant, Alexander Knox and a silent Delphine Seyrig. Perhaps too arthouse for some, but a considerable success and now one of the key movies of the 60s.

Then followed another interesting European one, presumably destined for home consumption in Italy, as it never surfaced in the UK, but I did catch up with it last year: GIRL WITH A PISTOL a comedy drama by Mario Monicelli in 1968 stars Monica Vitti (in a frightful black wig) as a Sicilian peasant woman dishonoured by her man, so she follows him to London with, yes, a gun. This isn’t the Swinging London of the time but a downbeat look at other London and Brighton locations – Stanley pops up as a doctor and at one stage takes Monica into that famous gay (then) pub The Salisbury (which was the pub used in VICTIM).

Some titles followed which I did not see: a period piece with Tommy Steele: WHERE’S JACK? and a routine war film THE LAST GRENADE. Also unseen was a Michael Winner film in 1970, THE GAMES which now sounds interesting in retrospect. Featuring athletes assembling for the Olympics it stars marathon runners Ryan O’Neal (the American), Charles Aznavour as a Czech!, Michael Crawford as the English runner with a more than demanding coach – Baker at his heaviest – as well as an Aborigine. This one may be worth tracking down now, if only for any unintentional hilarity !

Also in 1970 was Peter Hall’s crime caper comedy PERFECT FRIDAY where David Warner and Ursula Andress are the rich couple on their uppers and Stanley as their bank manager who hits on a plan to rob the bank, but needs their assistance, so it comes down to a who trusts who? Its an enjoyable movie of its time, enlivened by some publicity shots featured prominently at the time of a nude Ursula and Stanley.

Another one to catch up with now would be A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN from 1971 with the intriguing casting of Florinda Balkan and Jean Sorel, in one of those giallo thrillers. (I have since seen this and it certanly ramps up the thrills and gore).

I saw him opening a garden fete around this time, in the early 70s, somewhere in Battersea. After some more unseen films came some BBC serials: ROBINSON CRUSOE in 1974 and HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY in 1975 with Sian Phillips and a great Welsh cast, a project which must have been close to him.

However he had now contracted lung cancer. Like contemporaries Stephen Boyd and Laurence Harvey he died too young while still in his 40s. Unlike Burton he did have an enduring marriage and was probably a happier man. He was knighted in 1976 and would have surely have continued producing and acting. Its quite a legacy though of enduring roles. Three cheers for Stanley.

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