When I was a kid there was a cinema in the west end of Glasgow, the Hillhead Salon, which specialized in what repertory theatres call revivals. Psycho made a comeback. Big Jobs said, “Fancy going?”
“It’s an X,” I said redundantly.
Big Jobs took out a pack of Peter Stuyvesant – he had expensive tastes – and expertly flicked up the cigarettes so that they formed a histogram like the pipes in an organ loft. He deftly snatched a 32 foot diapason between his teeth. He lit it in one smooth motion. Ian Fleming would have said something like, “he snapped open the tiny jaws of the Ronson…” He took in a deep lungful of smoke and exhaled it luxuriously through his mouth and nostrils.
Ian had asked his faithful reader, William Plomer, (I was obsessed with Bond) how Vesper might have exhaled. How d’you get the smoke out of her?
I thought, it’s all right for you, Big Jobs. You are six feet and 180 pounds. You’ve looked middle aged since you were about eight. I’m twelve and I look twelve. How am I going to get in? But Big Jobs said it was okay. He knew the guy at the kiosk.
In these days of glorious simplicity, the British Board of Film Censors had three categories: U for Universal… anyone could go. A I think for over twelve with accompanying adult, and X for…well, X. You had to be over 16.
Why X? Why not G for grown-ups? X definitely had a wrong-side-of-the-tracks connotation for us. At school when we were right we got a tick; when we were wrong, an X. Taboo. Verboten. Perhaps the film distributors, mindful of the lure of the forbidden, bribed the censors to use the term X.
There were two types of X. Either the film was scary or it was dirty. Occasionally it was both. Werewolves, for example, preferred beautiful semi-clad women for their prey. Psycho started out promisingly dirty and then seemed to go off at a complete tangent and ended up scary as hell. Young people used to sit in the back stalls for a snog up; it all seems a bit innocent now. There were seats designed specifically for snoggers at the back of Green’s Playhouse. They were called “fauteuils”. You would say to the man at the box-office, “Two, please,” and he would embrace you with a halitotic grimace.
Pornography on the whole wasn’t on general release. You had to be in a club for that. Pathetic old men in raincoats joined up at some fleapit. If we weren’t tempted to go it wasn’t because we didn’t want to see the movies. But the idea of being seen queuing with the dirty old men was just too much to bear.
We didn’t all make it into The Salon. My classmates Big Jobs, Brian and I went, but for some reason kiosk man took exception to Brian. We’d already decided that we’d live with whatever outcome we got so all we could do was shrug apologetically, leave Brian at the entrance, and pass into the darkness of the theatre. At least he’d saved himself 1s 9d. I envied him. I’d much rather have gone to see North by Northwest.
There are three big frights in Psycho. The immortal shower scene of course. Then the long silent ascent of a detective up a stairway. Finally the encounter with the remains of Norman’s mother. There was a lot of hype about Psycho so to an extent you knew what was coming. What must it have been like to go to the premier and not know to brace yourself? After Janet Leigh’s character is murdered there is a long and essentially silent scene when the camera pans across her dead visage as the blood trickles down the plug hole. It is curiously calming. Catharsis, the purgation of pity and terror. You can imagine the first audience in the theatre auditorium, buzzing, almost laughing hysterically, and then gradually calming down. Whatever next?
I had known what was coming, but I wasn’t prepared for the terrible violence implicit in the Bernard Hermann score. The shifty, unsettling theme of the opening credits and of Janet Leigh’s exhausting drive through the night rain did not prepare you for these high-pitched squawking staccato down bows and the great fortissimo hammer blows in the lower strings. I thought to myself, what the hell are you doing here? You know you’re of a nervous disposition! I stole a glance at Big Jobs. He was lighting another Stuyvesant. He was thoroughly enjoying himself.
Quatermass and the Pit. Ever since that poor man in East London went back into the capsule unearthed in the London underground station to collect his spanner, and his world went berserk, I’ve been a nervous viewer. When the policeman went into the derelict building in Hobs Lane and felt some malevolent presence, I felt it too. A for Andromeda, The Big Pull, The Scarf. Even The World of Tim Fraser was a bit spooky. I watched from behind the sofa.
But there was one thing I couldn’t watch, and I discovered it with Knock on Any Door, a story about a young man drifting from juvenile delinquency to serious crime and eventually, inevitably, to the Chair. Live fast, die young, and have a good looking corpse! Even a defense attorney as eloquent as Bogey couldn’t get him off. “Knock on any door, and you’ll find a Nick Romano…” So handsome Nick combs his hair for the last time, and, surrounded by his implacable gaolers, takes that last walk down the long corridor to the blinding light in the doorway at its end. I wasn’t just scared; I was phobic. The first sign of a noose, a gas chamber, or device attaching you to the national grid and I’m out of there! In Glasgow there had been a man named Peter Manuel who had broken into houses and shot people in their sleep. He had been one of the last people to be hanged at Barlinnie. A colleague of my father’s had been present at his demise and he said it had been terrible. But I didn’t want to know. There was no way you could dramatise judicial execution without its horror spilling over into real life. I preferred to watch Perry Mason, because he always won his case. The defendant was safe. You wondered why the DA’s office bothered to give Hamilton Burger the brief, why they bothered to take a statement from Lieutenant Tragg, when they knew Mason, his secretary Della Street, and his private detective Paul Drake were on the case. The credits rolled by against the backdrop of a pile of old law books. Lex Angelicorum. The music was hard, noir, inviolable, the music of jurisprudence.
Pah pah paaaaaaah…. Pa PAH!
Other noir TV sound tracks are forever etched on the memory. The Dick Powell Show. The music was an American version of a British Imperial March of the style of Elgar or Walton, with a spacious and eloquent maestoso melody preceded by a rhythmic, edgy, syncopated allegro.
Pa pa pah!- pa pa-ra Pa-rah!
Pa pa pah! – pa pa-ra Pa-rah!
PAH! PAH! Pah! Pah…
Hollywood Noir conveyed the sense that civilization in America was the thinnest veneer. The good and the true were vastly outnumbered. Nothing had changed from the days of the Wild West. High Noon is the great exemplar of a notion that has been attributed to Edmund Burke, that in order for evil to prevail, all that is required is that good men do nothing. So Garry Cooper trawls his way around town looking for deputes, and the good men do nothing. Even Grace Kelly, for all that she looks great, isn’t much help. By the time he has exhausted all the possibilities, Cooper is on a suicide mission. Why didn’t he quit and get out of town? Did he have a death wish? Was it fortitude? Was he resolved to do the right thing come what may? Was it, as Grace saw it, sheer bloody-mindedness? Could he not bear the shame of acquiescence?
All of the above. One thing’s for sure, he didn’t do it for love. By the time he’s through, Cooper has shot up the men he hates and anybody who is still alive he despises. They crawl out of their shuttered houses obsequiously and he turns his back on them and rides out of town. Even his relationship with his bride is scarred – who knows – irreparably.
Extraordinary figures, these big stars of Hollywood in the golden age. Cooper, Fonda, Wayne, Stewart, Peck. Who compares with them now? Cooper seemed to radiate an extraordinary moral power. He could convince you he was a man big enough to face insurmountable odds, and win through. It was a recurring theme in American culture, this notion of one brave individual versus the bad guys, with no help from his erstwhile tepid spew-thee-out-of-my-mouth friends. The hero was sympathetic because he didn’t go out looking for a fight. He didn’t seem by nature to be braver than any of the rest of us. In fact, he was rather vulnerable. He had sensitivity. His enemies mistook it for weakness. That was their mistake. Capone v Ness. Robert Stack played Ness on the TV. Like Richard Greene playing Robin Hood on this side of the Pond, Stack had the demeanour of a bank manager. The ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. He alone stopped Chicago from sliding into complete mayhem and anarchy. The booze factor was almost a side issue. It was all about power. The saloon cars with the duckboards screeched around town and the machine guns went ratatatatatatat and the man in spats lay in a puddle of his own blood in the gutter.
Frank Nitty! A dirty death for a dirty man!
Power, wealth, and sex – these were the ingredients of Hollywood Noir. These were the driving forces, the things that made the American world go round. And the women were worse than the men. Look at Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. The ultimate femme fatale. What chance did poor Fred McMurray have? At least he plugs her in the end. It’s like Macbeth. There doesn’t seem to be any possibility of redemption for anybody. Even Edward G Robinson, on the side of right, is a strangely amoral figure, a virtuoso of insurance law, devoted to the aesthetic of his calling for its own sake. Fred loves him, hates him, respects him, fears him.
“Straight down the line, Keys!”
It was a terrible vision. It seemed to be at odds with one’s personal experience. The psychopaths at school numbered less than a handful, shared more or less equally between staff and pupils. If somebody got seriously out of line and, say, stabbed somebody in the toilets, the police would come and there would be an expulsion and the headmaster would say, “So-and-so had to go. He was seriously interfering with the activity of the vast majority of our pupils who come to school to learn and who just want to get on with their work.” And it seemed to be true. Most of the time the school seemed to function, not because of any evident manifestation of tyranny, but by a mutual consent.
Yet maybe the Hollywood Noir vision was true. Maybe it was all on a knife edge and all this civilisation of ours could collapse in a minute. It had happened before. Had it not happened that way in Germany between the wars? In the land of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, the gangsters had taken over. Could it happen here? If it were to start happening, would I recognise it? And if I did, what would I do? Would I keep my head down and feather my nest (there’s always somebody making money out of a war), or would I, for sheer cussedness, be Garry Cooper?
I asked my father, a policeman, about villainy. After all, confronting villainy was his calling. Were we all wicked?
My father said, “There are two kinds of villains; there’s the needy, and there’s the greedy.” That rings truer than ever.