Friday, June 14, 2019

STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING 1972

"She asked where he lived. 'Second to the right,' said Peter, 
'and then straight on till morning.'"
Peter Pan   J.M. Barrie


On the DVD commentary for Hammer Film’s Straight on Till Morning, British actress Rita Tushingham speaks of having been saddled with the image and moniker of “ugly duckling” since making her film debut as Jo in Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1962). A role the inexperienced 18-year-old won after answering a brazenly forthright newspaper casting ad seeking an “ugly unknown” to star in Richardson’s forthcoming film adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s groundbreaking 1958 play.
A Taste of Honey, while winning Tushingham a crateload of awards (BAFTA, Golden Globe, Cannes Film Festival) and overnight stardom, also saddled the actress with the persistent screen persona of common-touch antithesis to the Julie Christies, Judy Geesons, and sexy dolly birds and of ‘60s New Wave in British cinema. Whether assaying roles tackling kitchen-sink drama: The Leather Boys (1964), the sexual revolution: The Knack….and How to Get It (1965), the swinging London scene: Smashing Time (1967), or the international market: Doctor Zhivago (1965); Rita Tushingham’s large eyes and unique looks inevitably figured significantly in defining her characters.
Rita Tushingham as Brenda "Wendy" Thompson
Shane Briant as Clive "Peter" Price
Katya Wyeth as Caroline
Clair Kelly as Margo Thompson
A critic’s darling regarded as a serious actress with a flair for absurdist comedy, Tushingham had never been approached by Britain’s independent Hammer Films (“My teeth weren’t long enough,” she jokes, in reference to the company’s bread-and-butter staple of vampire films) prior to producer Michael Carreras—pivotal in the studio’s ultimately unprofitable move toward expanding Hammer’s image beyond color-saturated Gothic—coming to her with a proposal from playwright John Peacock (Children of the Wolf - 1971) to write an original screenplay especially for her to be directed by Peter Collinson (The Italian Job – 1969).
The collaboration resulted in Straight on Till Morning, an unorthodox, character-driven psychological thriller that’s a very grim fairy tale about a naïve and disturbed young woman with a Wendy Complex drawn to a psychotic Prince Charming lethally suffering from Peter Pan Syndrome. While the film represented a departure for Tushingham in terms of genre, the working class, socially-awkward character she plays feels a deliberate composite of many of the roles she’d played before.
At this point in her career, Straight on Till Morning represented at least the
fourth film in which Rita Tushingham portrayed an unsophisticated character
who moves from Northern England to find a life for herself in London

Brenda (Tushingham) is a timid young librarian sharing a drab flat in a particularly dreary section of Liverpool with her widowed mother. It's established early on that Brenda is a fantasist who retreats from reality by writing fairy tales about a beautiful princess named Rosalba who lives in a magical kingdom with a handsome prince. Though ostensibly children’s stories she hopes one day to publish, these fairy tales are actually Brenda’s escape-from-reality fantasies of the life she envisions for herself. 
A life she peruses with avid, if misguided, fervor after one day quitting her job and informing her mother she is pregnant and moving to London to find a man to take care of her and her unborn baby. It’s a lie, of course, as the withdrawn Brenda is a virgin. But the part about going to London to find a father for her baby is accurate, if deceptively worded: in truth, she’s going to London in search of a man to have a baby with.
Tom Bell as Jimmy Lindsay
And indeed, after acquiring a tiny apartment and landing a job at a trendy boutique (where she’s squirreled away, out of sight, in the wrapping department), Brenda plunges headlong into an indiscriminate, ultimately fruitless search for a man. Her method of flirtation...approaching sundry men on the street and greeting them with a simple “Hello!” and nothing else, Tushingham comes across as a grow-up Flicker Farkel, the hyper-friendly, monosyllabic little girl Ruth Buzzi portrayed on Laugh-In.
Brenda’s prospects improve briefly when she jumps at the news of pretty co-worker Caroline (Katya Wyeth) looking for someone to share her well-trodden apartment (“She’s man mad! Non-stop men and parties”). Unfortunately, soon after moving in it becomes readily apparent that if Brenda’s palpable desperation and clumsy social skills don’t immediately sabotage her with the guys, then the competition from her stunning roommate most certainly will. 
James Bolam as Joey
After losing a potential suitor to her roommate (in Brenda's mind, anyway…the crass, unappealing fellow she set her sites on never once treated her with anything other than bored indifference) a dejected Brenda salves her sorrows with a late-night walk and comes upon a scruffy-looking dog who’s momentarily got away from his owner. Upon catching sight of the dog’s owner—a tall, impossibly blond, strikingly handsome gentleman possessed of the androgynous beauty of a fairy tale prince—Brenda does what anyone would do under the circumstances: kidnap the dog, bathe it, and, using its tag as a guide, contrive a face-to-face meeting with the owner under the guise of returning the "lost" dog.

But we have seen that these two have met before. We have been made privy to the fact that they are both childlike fantasists who retreat into nursery rhymes and fairy stories while looking for magic. So, when we learn that the dog’s name is Tinker, the young man calls himself Peter (Shane Briant), and that he wishes to call Brenda by the name of Wendy and have her move in and take care of him …we know at once that each has found what they have been looking for.

Which isn’t exactly the same thing as finding what they want.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
As a teen I always enjoyed Hammer’s 1970s anthology films (The House That Dripped Blood, Tales from the Crypt, Tales That Witness Madness, and Asylum) because they were contemporary, colorful, and, like the horror comic books I read as a kid, the scares they provided were of the fun, creepy type…not disturbing.
These films always played at the Embassy Theater on San Francisco’s Market Street on some low-budget double-bill, and so always had about them the air of grindhouse. I suppose I never gave the studio the credit it deserved because to my young mind Hammer Films was but the British answer to American-International: the latter relied on to supply a steady stream of cut-rate biker and beach flicks, the former solidified in my mind as the studio that gave us cheap, accessible horror. 
Because I never really cared much for Hammer’s vampire, mummy, and Frankenstein films, the contemporary setting and departure from the norm that Straight on Till Morning represents is precisely why I found it so fascinating.
"And three days later the Princess Rosalba was married to the prince of princes who
would love her for all time. And they lived happily ever after."

Fairy tales have always been a great deal darker and more horrifying that Disney would have us believe. John Peacock's original screenplay for Straight on Till Morning employs the violence and cruelty of classic fairy tales to spin a dark fable that serves as a warped commentary on the role physical beauty tends to play in the stories written for children.

Fairy tale tradition has it that all evil people are ugly, their villainous hearts manifest in their exteriors in the form of witches, hags, ogres, and monsters. By the same token, all good and happy people in fairy tales are beautiful. Glinda's explanation to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz that "Only bad witches are ugly," is pretty much broad strokes shorthand for how things go in fairy tales. 
But by way of a narrative sleight of hand that must prove confusing to the very young, fairy tales simultaneously like to promote the notion that even with all those externally beautiful princes and princes running around, all true beauty comes from within, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and  all that glitters is not gold. A happy heart and loving soul makes everyone beautiful on the outside, and sometimes, beneath the unprepossessing exterior of a beast, frog, or ugly duckling can flow a stream of inner beauty just waiting for the kiss of love to allow it to emerge.
Brenda Beautifies Tinker(bell)
Straight on Till Morning uses this fairy tale idealism as a foundation for a psychological thriller that proposes nightmare consequences as the price paid for the avoidance of reality and retreating into worlds of illusion.
Clive is the childlike prince, loved and admired only for his looks, who comes to loathe his beauty—and in turn, all beauty—because of what beauty has done to him...left him lonely, unloved, and uncared for. Brenda is the even more naive and childlike swan princess who dreams of finding happiness with a prince whom she can love, who will love her in return, and with whom she can have a baby. Her wish is that they’ll live happily ever after in a magic kingdom of gold. But the swan princess is under an enchantment that makes everyone who looks at her only see an ugly duckling. In her loneliness, she ceases to believe herself capable of being loved, and in turn focuses all her energies on finding someone (a prince, a baby) to give love to.
Wendy Keeps Peter Happy By Telling Him Stories 

The dark twist of Straight on Till Morning is that Clive and Brenda are actually oddly, perversely well-suited to one another. But their relationship proves to be a collision of fantasies, not a union. Brenda’s fantasy, while idealized, is at least rooted in the grow-up world of romantic love and sex. Clive, while finding Brenda unpretty and therefore someone he can love, wants only a mother; someone who will take care of him, allow him to forever remain a child, and has no desire for him because of his appearance.

When Brenda agrees to move with Clive and be the platonic Wendy to his Peter Pan living together in the isolated Neverland of his apartment, she does so on the strength ofhis vague promise (“We shall see…”) that he will be the father of the baby she so desperately wants.
Clearly, both of these individuals are deeply disturbed, but it is Clive who has the homicidally dark past that makes us worry for Brenda’s safety when at last she grows frustrated with their arrangement and assumes things will improve if she can only make herself beautiful.
Pretty For You
Brenda's fatal mistake is assuming no one could love her as she is

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Straight on Till Morning is an original and effectively creepy thriller loaded with strong performances, a terrific (if a tad dated) look, and many good ideas and intriguing themes. But I’d be lying if I said they’re all given the opportunity to be fully realized. Part of the problem is with the script, which seems to have perhaps too many irons in the fire and thus suffers on occasion from jarring, dissonant shifts in tone. Some of the problem is to be found in Peter Collinson’s direction.
His extensive use of close-ups proves marvelously personal and intimate (and feels wholly unnerving after a while) and makes clever, extensive use of crosscutting and flashbacks to underscore themes. But—and this may be due to my personal fondness for Rita Tushingham as an actress—I think he severely miscalculates the depth of Tushingham’s sympathetic appeal, and thus at times, the film feels unduly harsh on her pitiable character (her beauty makeover is horrific). Indeed, I’d wager that the film’s poor reception and dismissed reputation is related at least in part to the film’s overall unpleasantness and irredeemably bleak vision of mankind. 
In an extreme departure for Hammer Films, the visual style of Straight on Till Morning is strongly redolent of late '60s experimental movies. As the camera follows several concurrent stories, characters who will formally meet later in the film are shown intersecting (often colliding) in early scenes. Throughout the film dialogue and inner thoughts are accompanied by contradicting or ironic imagery reflective of their pasts or their tenuous grasp of reality.
Since I've seen the film so often, I've become aware that several scenes visually echo and mirror one another as well. For example, Brenda's roommate Caroline appears in two pivotal sequences in which her seduction of a man ends in having a cataclysmic effect on Brenda's life. Both scenes are preceded by echoing images (the poised cup and unbroken gaze) where Caroline exhibits a sexual directness completely alien to Brenda.
As a side note, I like that the character of Caroline, whose form of beauty usually accompanies a bitchy personality in these kinds of film, turns out to be one of the most compassionate and unselfish.
Peter and Wendy Grow Up

PERFORMANCES
Because I think Rita Tushingham has an absolutely fabulous face, it takes a while to get used to everyone in the film taking it as a given that she is plain and unattractive. (She does, however, sport a doozy of a '70s hairdo that rivals Susannah York's in 1972s X, Y and Zee for long/short schizophrenia). An engagingly natural and appealing actress I've liked since first seeing her in A Taste of Honey,  Tushingham's participation is the main reason I was drawn to this film I'd somehow never heard of until about two years ago.
Jazz singer Annie Ross appears briefly as one of the many blowsy mother figures (make that Sugar Momma figures) in Clive's psychotic past. Ross was the singing voice for Ingrid Thulin in Salon Kitty (1976) and dubbed Britt Ekland dialogue in The Wicker Man (1973). She sings and wrote the music for this film's title tune, screenwriter John Peacock contributing the lyrics.

I've read reviews of Straight on Till Morning that simply describe the character of Brenda as timid and withdrawn...no mention of her being a seriously unbalanced woman. This, I think, is Tushigham's triumph. She inhabits her character so truthfully, you accept the character's vision of herself (Brenda doesn't see herself as deluded or disturbed). Shane Briant gives Tushingham a run for her money in the distracting hairdo sweepstakes (those pouffy '70s hairstyles made real hair look like wigs) but is happily on course when it comes to his performance. He's really quite good as the haunted boy/man, particularly near the end when he's able to somehow plumb the sympathetic depths of an absolute monster.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I have no memory of when Straight on Till Morning hit the theaters, but I've read that it was released on a double-bill with Hammer's Fear in the Night, a nifty thriller that pairs Judy Geeson with Joan Collins doing her patented Alexis Colby bitch shtick.
With big studios getting into the horror market with polished projects like The Mephisto Waltz (1971) Straight on Till Morning was one of a crop of films released by Hammer in the early '70s intended to compete. Unfortunately, it was an outright flop and cited as one of the against-type releases that hastened Hammer Studios' ultimate demise (its final production was The Lady Vanishes - 1979).
Which is too bad, really, because I really liked the '60s vibe of this '70s movie. All brown tones and eye-catching camerawork. As thrillers go, it's plenty eventful enough for me (in fact, I wouldn't have minded if a couple of the more unpleasant scenes were shorter or excised entirely) but fans of the genre may find it slow going. I appreciated the film's deliberate pacing, finding the time spent on developing the characters allowed both for the opportunity to savor the strong performances and ample time to cover your eyes once the screaming starts.


BONUS MATERIAL
Although Rita Tushingham has expressed little fondness for Straight on Till Morning, that didn't stop her from appearing the following year in another John Peacock-penned thriller with a fairy tale theme (playing yet another repressed librarian). This time for an episode of the BBC-TV anthology series, Armchair Theater.
Rita Tushingham as Grace in Little Red Riding Hood  1973

This essay is an entry in The 2nd Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis & Realweegiemidget Reviews. Check out the links to read about more films!
Copyright © Ken Anderson

17 comments:

  1. It is a minor nitpick of your fantastic review but the anthology films you mentioned are all Amicus films, not Hammer films, with the exception fo Tales That Witness Madness which was produced by World Film Services. Perhaps, if you weren't giving Hammer their due, it was because you weren't watching Hammer films. I think they're a cut above their competitors and movies like this, Don't Take Sweets From A Stranger and The Devil Rides Out are really brilliant pieces of work.

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    1. Oh, it's not a minor nitpick at all. They're different studios and I appreciate the opportunity for accuracy. Thanks for reading this essay and for the kind words!

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  2. Excellent, in-depth review. I really need to see this one. I love the Flicker Farkel reference! Spent part of my childhood watching Laugh-In. Thank you!

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    1. Thank you very much! And glad you enjoyed the Flicker Farkel reference...LAUGH-IN was a big part of my childhood as well. Thank you very much for reading this post and commenting!

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  3. Nice post on an excellent film in the Hammer cannon that really needs to be more appreciated. Rita Tushingham is a fascinating actress. Oddly as a child when I first saw Doctor Zhivago (with much of it going over my head) her's was the preformance I never forgot. That beautiful face with those large haunted eyes really stuck in my little kid mind.

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    1. Thanks a heap! I understand why the film is not a favorite among traditional Hammer fans, but I too think there is much in this imperfect but compelling film to warrant a reappraisal of its virtues.
      And that's a wonderful memory to share about seeing Doctor Zhivago as a child. I don't know how much actual screen time Rita Tushingham has in this epic, but she does make a very strong impression. And precisely for the reasons you cite. Appreciate your reading this and taking the time to comment!

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  4. Really enjoyed your review (and off to check out your thoughts on X, Y and Zee too - I reviewed it myself so love to hear your thoughts on it) - I adored Rita in A Taste of Honey, shes a fabulous underrated actress so lovely to read that this written for her. Thanks as always for joining the blogathon Ken! from Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews

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    1. My pleasure, Gil! And thanks. You got me to write my first piece on a Rita Tushingham film. She's really one of my all time favorites (and, indeed, underrated), and this being such a poorly-regarded obscurity only adds to its appeal for me. Now I must be off to read YOUR take on X,Y and ZEE...as I've said, your enthusiasm for film always makes your posts such a pleasure. Thanks for inviting me to participate in this...we here in the US are in need of a little fantasy horror right now; real life is a nightmare!

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  5. Argyle, here! OMG this looks fantastic! I'm catching up! I still adore this site!! Just going through some life events. Rita Tushingham is an inspiration. That hair!

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    1. Hi Argyle! Nice of you to give quick shout out to the sublime Tushingham and her unorthodox hairdo (which she never tires of commenting upon...disparagingly...on the great DVD commentary).

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  6. Excellent, in-depth review if a long-overlooked Hammer film. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon!

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    1. Thank you so much, Barry! You and Gil throw a hell of a Blogathon! Wonderful participants all-around. I don't know how you get around to reading them all. Happy and honored to be a part of it.

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  7. Very interesting and insightful review. I've not seen the film but I find it so odd that Tushingham was considered an ugly duckling. I agree with you that her face is quite fetching and that blond haircut, while a little bizarre, doesn't make her seem plain. On the other hand, I think it was largely her hairstyle in A Taste of Honey that allowed her to be passed off as unattractive. The cut seems to be intentionally ill-suited to her face and accents the less feminine aspects.

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    1. Yes, at least according to Tushingham on the DVD commentary, the press and critics making reference to her appearance has dogged her her entire career. She claims not to buy into it and takes it in stride, but makes a point of not reading reviews.
      I think she has marvelously striking and unique good looks offset by the most incredible eyes. Of course, above and beyond all, she's just such a brilliant actress.
      For a role written expressly for her to be so centered on the issue of beauty...with Tushingham figuring on the other end of the spectrum...is curious, but the film (not wholly successfully) does try to make the point that her character's inability to see her own beauty is a fatal flaw.
      I appreciate your compliment and I thank you for reading my post and taking the time to comment!

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  8. a Tony Richardson vets movie: Rita and James Bolam

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  9. Probably after this point in Tushingham's career, any time somebody handed her a script where she had to play a naïve young girl from Northern England seeking to make a new life for herself in London, she immediately closed it up and threw it in the garbage.

    I think it's possible I might've seen a lot of her older movies when I was a kid, but I started to get more into her work in my late-teens, when many of them were shown on WNET (PBS Channel 13) in the 1980's. Nevertheless, if I mentioned movies like "The Knack and How to Get It," and "Smashing Time" to most Americans, they wouldn't know what the hell I was talking about.

    Say what you want about the 1970's hairdos in this movie, but I like her in this shot:
    https://lecinemadreams.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2019-07-31T16:41:00-07:00&max-results=7&start=9&by-date=false

    And this is coming from a guy who's more into women with retro-1960's hairdos.

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    1. Ha! I'm certain you're 100% correct about the number of scripts Tushingham must have received during her heyday that simply sought to cast her to type.
      Save for A TASE OF HONEY, I don't recall many of her films being shown on TV when I was growing up. I didn't catch a lot of her films until the VHS/DVD era. And my experience has been that very few Americans these days know who she is or any of the titles of her films.
      Though I can't tell which photo is referenced in your link, I can imagine that it's one of the more flattering screenshots. Nice to hear from someone who likes and is familiar with Tushingham's work. Thank you for commenting!

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