HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 May 2011
Legendary British exploitation director Pete Walker's 1969 quota quickie The Big Switch aka Strip Poker is something of a time capsule that's more interesting for its backdrop of Soho at its seediest and Brighton at its snowiest than for its plot, which Walker readily admits he knocked out in a morning and stole from His Kind of Woman. But where that had Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Raymond Burr and Vincent Price, all the resources of one of Howard Hughes' pet projects and some witty banter, this has Sebastian Breaks, Virginia Wetherall and Derek Aylward, a budget that wouldn't have covered a half-hour TV show and the odd surreal line like "Why don't you do yourself a favour. Join a monastery. Wring out wash leathers for a one-armed window cleaner." The film's biggest name is probably Patrick Allen, and he only provides the film's would-be cynical stage-setting narration ("This, as you may or may not know, is London, headquarters of devaluation, socialism and the perrmissssive so-ciety... and this is where the would-be non-conformists shop... Mr John Carter, the central character of the epic you are about to see, could under the circumstances be described as a misfit."). Despite the dark night exteriors Brian Tufano's available light photography is much better than it has any right to be and time has rendered some of the locations almost exotic in their cut-price way, with Brighton's twice burned-out West Pier making more of an impression in the snowy shootout than the film's obnoxious antihero.
Not that that would be difficult: Walker preferred his leading men bland, and despite playing `swinging London's ace lady killer" - the kind of guy who's so wild he doesn't wear a tie at work - Breaks reacts with the same utter indifference to being fired from his high-powered advertising job, having girls throw themselves at him or finding hired thugs playing poker in his pad as he does to finding a dead naked woman in the shower. If bored inertia had a name in the 60s, it must be Sebastian Breaks: nothing fazes him - he probably wouldn't even react if you dropped a piano on him. He's so impervious to any emotion that he might just be a ventriloquist's dummy with woodworm. It's a tossup up as to whether he was cast because at the right angle he looks a little bit like a young James Fox or because he lost money he didn't have to Walker in a game of cards and putting him in the film was the only way the director would see his money back (though it was probably as mundane as his long-running supporting role as part of the ensemble in BBC's hugely popular cop series Z-Cars).
There's a fairly high but still rather chaste quota of nudity and unconvincing violence that was censor-baiting stuff back in 1969 - it's the kind of film where a casual pickup will strip off only to find a black man with a gun in her shower - but now seems tamer than most PGs. It's more strictly rationed in the UK version where, after one full frontal nude scene even the strippers keep their arms crossed and the most a girl playing strip poker removes is her necklace as if the censor would turn a blind eye to reel one as long as they promised not to be too naughty again. The longer export version is a different matter, with bare boobs left, right and centre (it's not her necklace that the strip poker player says "has got to be worth a tenner" this time) and Breaks' offscreen beating shown as an onscreen torture session with his chief torturer, naturally, a naked woman with a lighted cigarette.
Walker was still learning his craft and there's nothing here to indicate much talent. Plotting is beyond lazy. Much of the first half of the film turns out to be irrelevant and rather than uncovering the plot, Breaks simply has to look at the half-naked model who's holding him at gunpoint in the villain's Brighton pad for her to decide to sleep with him ("The day I need a gun with a man is the day I give up!") and tell him the entire plot, which at least saves Walker some money to hire a plane to sit on an airport runway behind the actors for a couple of hours even if it's not enough to fill the tank and have it fly. Shots of people getting into cars and driving away take forever thanks to drivers putting them in the wrong gear and waiting patiently for all the traffic to pass by, leaving the impression that unless the cast passed out mid-sentence there were no second takes on this shoot. Even the shootout on a snow-covered West Pier and its ghost train is so ineptly handled that when one actor accidentally slips and falls on his arse after shooting his gun it actually looks more convincing than the scenes where nobody falls over. In a film that never bothers to explain where our captive hero suddenly gets a gun from, where heavy snow disappears from shot to shot and where part of a chase scene has him and the heroine very obviously running on the spot, it actually adds a touch of much-needed veracity.
It's not one of those funny bad movies, it's just a bad movie that was probably an unwatchable one back in 1968, and it's amazing to think that there was a time when the British government actually passed a law forcing UK cinemas to show films like this. It's naff, but compulsively naff and almost endearing in its innocent sleaziness.
Walker's talent for miscasting his leading men is much to the fore again in his later, bigger budgeted (tiny rather than microscopic) and slightly more ambitious Moon (going by its alternate title Man of Violence on the DVD and Blu-Ray packaging, but not the film itself, to avoid confusion with the Doug Jones scifi film). Michael Latimer, best remembered as Van Der Valk's likeable sidekick in the long-running 70s TV series, is the kind of bloke your mother would like your sister to marry, so naturally Walker casts him as a tough, cynical man of mystery who'll shag anything with a pulse. It's like casting Dean Jones as James Bond but with much less interesting results.
He's at once a half-knowing parody of the typical movie adventurer with the odd quirk you wouldn't find in the hero of a movie with a halfway decent budget back in 1969 - an ex-crook with ambitions to get out with enough money, he's the kind of guy who's not above sleeping with someone's private secretary to get some information even if that secretary is a man. Well, the 70s were just around the corner. His only virtue is that he's not as bad as the other characters chasing a fortune in gold. As he puts it, "If not me, a megalomaniac industrialist, a pack of savages who'll just use it to buy arms to kill each other or a hefty lesbian and a protection racketeer? Those are the friends gold has. It's better off with a self-respecting thief."
As with The Big Switch, Walker starts out with one plot before quickly shifting to another without really bothering to let the audience know: one minute Latimer is caught piggy in the middle between Derek Francis' property developer, nightclub owner and pop star promoter and his caftan-wearing gangland ex-partner Maurice Kaufman whose boys have an axe to grind with the décor of his drinking clubs, the next the name of a new Arab sheikdom and coded documents are suddenly being bandied around from out of nowhere. It's as if Walker never bothered to go back to the earlier pages of the script to tie things together, leaving huge plotholes and unanswered questions. Even a scene in a gay bar with a government minister doesn't shed any light on who tried to kill Moon in a churchyard a couple of scenes earlier, the dialogue just dancing around the issue with purple prose that doesn't make any more sense than the rest of the film. It's like a half-remembered stream of consciousness dream involving an Arab sheikdom, an Italian delicatessen in Southampton, gun-running, gold smuggling, a rock group (or more specifically their van) and the mysterious Tarquin in Thames Ditton, all thrown into the mix in the hope they'll sort themselves out somehow. You either go with it to see where it'll go or just give up on.
Although there are a few familiar faces from The Big Switch in the cast - Derek Aylward's typically untrustworthy smoothie ("Bland as butter and twice as slippery"), Erika Raffael and Virginia Wetherall as the aforementioned hefty lesbian (this time the leading lady duties are passed on to Luan Peters) - Walker is clearly aiming for main feature status rather than the bottom half of a double-bill this time, with the film clocking in at a surprisingly lengthy 108 minutes despite his clearly limited resources. The kind of cheap `double-dip' quota quickie where a couple of scenes are shot in the café below Peter Walker's Beak Street offices to save time and money, it's even more genuinely surprising that the film actually shot some sequences in Tunisia rather than just talking about it even if nobody does anything too expensive while they're out there. It's the kind of film where, because talk is cheap, the characters do a lot of it. Try this pre-interrogation monologue on for size: "Humphrey Bogart will be remembered for those immortal words `Spill the beans.' You might like to save Mr Bogart the embarrassment of having to turn in his grave to hear me mutilate the majesty of those words. Just tell me everything you know, sweetheart. Or better still, everything Moon knows... There are 26 letters in the English alphabet. Arranged in a motley manner, they can be made to impart certain information. Which they shall. I shall leave you with a friend of ours for a few moments. When I return I expect to find you suitably mulled."
There are the odd moments of perverse inspiration, such as smashing a corpse's teeth in to get a piece of evidence locked in his mortified jaws, wiping blood off a knife with a girl's knickers before throwing them back to her to put on or a lesbian torture scene where Peters recites books of the Bible in response to Wetherall's pawing (no prizes for what happens when she gets to Revelations), and there's a wonderfully cynical ending with one character deciding to make the best of a bad job leading to a great last line. If nothing else, you do get the feeling that Howard Hughes at least would have given the thing a go back in the days when he was running RKO into the ground.
It's certainly no undiscovered masterpiece, though, cult or otherwise, playing like a below average TV thriller with added sex and violence in a vain attempt to lure the punters away from their TV sets. Nor does it have quite the same time-capsule appeal or compulsive naffness as The Big Switch even if it is set in the days when caftans were the height of fashion and the classiest restaurants all had a thing for tartan wallpaper. While some of the characters had their real-life counterparts in some of the era's more controversial figures like corrupt architect and developer John Paulson, gay MP and close associate of the Kray Twins Lord Boothby and wide-boy Johnny `Biffo' Bindon, it's not a great expose torn from the headlines, simply using their notoriety as a springboard for a picture aimed as much at the US drive-in circuit as the local British fleapits with as much unconvincing violence and rather more convincing nudity as the censors would allow. Though there is perhaps a touch of irony in the fact that Walker quit movies and went into property development himself. Maybe that's what happened to the gold?
Unseen for years (unless you had an old Super 8mm copy), both films are brought together on a single Blu-Ray by the BFI, and a surprisingly good job they've done of it, offering Man of Violence and both cuts of The Big Switch (though you only get the tamer UK cut on the DVD) in excellent transfers that probably look better than the original cinema prints, with trailers and a pleasingly informative booklet mixing critical analysis that helps put the films in their historical context without pretending they're any good and contributions from Walker and his regular scriptwriter (but not on these two) David McGillivray. Neither film is truly worth the attention, but they're certainly no worse than some of the no-budget straight-to-video tax-shelter genre dreck emanating from the outskirts of the British film industry over the past decade.