Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Buried Treasures: Flame in the Streets (1961)

A cursory glance at the names in the cast of this film scripted by Ted Willis (who adapted his 1958 stage play Hot Summer Night, based on the infamous Notting Hill riots) and directed by Roy Ward Baker (A Night to Remember, Quatermass and the Pit) convinced me that it would be an ideal candidate for Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s first official “Overlooked Films” entry: John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Brenda De Banzie and Wilfrid Brambell, to name just a few.  The good people at VCI Entertainment were nice enough to send me a gratis copy, one of several films that make up what they call “The Rank Collection.”

Jack “Jacko” Palmer (Mills) is a liberal-minded union official who’s struggling to keep several of the members in his organization in line because of his intention to promote West Indian worker Gabriel Gomez (Earl Cameron) into a supervisory position in the furniture factory where they both work.  A faction of white workers, egged on by a particularly nasty piece of work named Mitchell (Meredith Edwards) and pressured by the fact that most of the union members are working “short time”, opposes Gabe’s promotion and threaten a strike on racial grounds but are eventually won over by Jacko when he argues that “black or white or khaki” they must all stick together or the union is done for (“United We Stand—Divided We Fall”).  We like Jacko—a straight-shooting, plain-spoken speaker who judges an individual not by the color of his skin but by the caliber of his work.

But through the course of Flame’s 93-minute running time, the likable Jacko is exposed as a hypocrite—and it comes in the form of his daughter Kathie, a dedicated schoolteacher who’s fallen in love with another fellow educator in Peter Lincoln (Johnny Sekka) and plans to marry him.  Her mother Nell is the first to hear of this (Kathie is quite coy about her paramour but Mum gets the skinny from a gossipy neighbor who tells her that Kathie was in the company of a “coloured”) and is horrified at the thought; she argues vehemently against her daughter’s intentions, gradually revealing herself to be a monstrous racist (she accuses Kathie of being a "whore" and at one point during the movie screams at her “Go to your nigger!”).  When Jacko learns of Kathie’s matrimonial plans he doesn’t quite react in the same violent fashion as his wife but he is also against the union, using familiar arguments about the adversity of facing prejudice, the stigma of non-acceptance, etc.  Not only is the relationship between Kathie and her parents ripped to shreds but we also learn that despite their twenty-year marriage Jacko and Nell have been going through the motions; Jacko has little focus outside the union but his Union…Nell, who believes that she’s little else than a stick of furniture or a fixture in Jacko’s home, would have walked out on her husband were it not for Kathie.

It’s fitting that the events in Flame in the Streets (1961) take place on November 5—the holiday known as Guy Fawkes Day, when Londoners celebrate with fireworks and bonfires because that is what literally and figuratively results from the events in the film.  There are additional subplots in the movie, too—the best one being that Gomez is married to a white woman (Ann Lynn), who has to convince her husband that his tendency to want to avoid conflict won’t advance his cause in life (he had planned to avoid the meeting that will decide on his promotion).  Judy Gomez also has a no-holds-barred conversation with Kathie toward the end of the film in which she tactfully lays out what’s ahead for the starry-eyed teacher once she and her black fianc√© are wed (they live in a “slum” area of town because landlords are rarely accepting of mixed marriages).  I thought the relationship between Gabe and Judy was quite intriguing; they are very much in love (they even have a baby on the way) but every now and then the tension rises to the surface because their marriage is constantly a rocky one.  The similarities between married man Gabe and unmarried Peter are also fascinating…and I was quite taken that while they are portrayed quite sympathetically the film never has to resort to that sort of safe Sidney Poitier nobility in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).

Reviews that I’ve read of this movie are critical of the fact that the film doesn’t lack for subtlety; the subplot that’s a little too melodramatic is the introduction of some leather-jacketed thugs (or “teddy boys,” to use the British parlance) who function as kind of a substitute KKK—I think there’s enough ugliness present amongst the main characters that this element could have been excised without too much trouble.  The reason why I liked Flame in the Streets is its solid acting; I’ll watch Mills in just about anything, and Syms, Sekka, Cameron and Lynn all offer fine support (not to mention Wilfrid Brambell, who plays Mills’ father…except whenever I see him in anything I always find myself shouting “You dirty old man!”—a reference to his long-running role as the senior Steptoe on the Britcom Steptoe and Son).  The acting honors go to De Banzie (whom most people are familiar with as the female villain in 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much), who lets us know right from her first appearance onscreen that there’s something not quite right in the House of Palmer…but when her mask is pulled away to reveal the monster beneath, it is positively marrow-chilling.

Except for the performers I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I wasn’t familiar with most of the names in this film’s cast though I spotted Monte Landis right off the bat in a small role as one of the union members (Landis plays the studio exec in the opening scenes of Targets) and of course heard the unmistakable screech of comedienne Barbara Windsor, who can be glimpsed (with her black boyfriend) walking past Syms in a street scene.  A fascinating blend of “kitchen sink drama” and race relations expose, Flame in the Streets is a neglected little gem…in fact, it is in many ways a sort of funhouse mirror version of the better-known Dinner but with a much more satisfying ending (the loose ends aren’t necessarily tied up in a pretty pink bow, and considering what the family goes through they shouldn’t be).  See this one when you get the chance.


ClassicBecky said...

I too love John Mills -- his presence makes any movie better. This one sounds like one I would like. Great review, Ivan, and wonderful synopsis of its meaning when you wrote that it was especially fitting that it took place on: "Guy Fawkes Day, when Londoners celebrate with fireworks and bonfires because that is what literally and figuratively results from the events in the film."

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Great review for a film definitely worth seeing - was the DVD you were sent in widescreen? The version available on DVD in the UK is a panned and scanned atrocity which really hurts as the movie was shot in the wide cinemascope ratio.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Sergio: The VCI release of Flame in the Streets is presented in widescreen. I'd highly recommend it.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Thanks Ivan - I'll definitely see about getting that version.


Rob J said...

A lost classic. I saw it once in 1985, and it has never been shown since.
Bearing in mind that it was made in 1961, at a time when the Notting Hill riots had only taken place a few years earlier, plus the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane, it captures a very pivotal period for sections of the West Indian community in the late 1950s and 60s.

Well watching. Sadly human nature hasn't changed that much.
Just look at the rise of the ghastly UKIP in the 21st Century.....