In the 1940s within a mile or so of where we lived in Armley in Leeds there were at least half a dozen cinemas. Nearest was the Picturedrome on Wortley Road but others were just a walk or a tramride away – the Lyric down Tong Road, the Clifton at Bramley, the Palace off Stanningley Road and the Western a bit further on. And without ever being a dedicated filmgoer I could have graded them all from fleapit upwards in their degree of comfort and sophistication just as, a little later, I would be able to grade the neighbourhood churches in terms of high and low, many of the churches and cinemas since sharing a common fate, conversion to carpet warehouses, second-hand furniture marts and, nowadays, health clubs.
Programmes changed twice a week and we generally went on a Monday and a Saturday. Comedies were best, particularly George Formby, but we took what was on offer, never knowing whether a film had any special merit. Some came with more of a reputation than others, Mrs Miniver for instance with Greer Garson, Dangerous Moonlight (with the Warsaw Concerto) and Now, Voyager with the famous cigarettes. But I’m sure I must have seen both Citizen Kane and Casablanca on their first time round with no notion that these were films of a different order from the usual twice-weekly fare. It was only towards the end of the war that more of a fuss started to be made over forthcoming films, so that I remember reading in Picture Post (and probably at the barber’s) about The Way to the Stars with the young Jean Simmons, and the making of Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale, and the first Royal Command Performance, another Powell film, A Matter of Life and Death.
Suburban cinemas were often pretty comfortless places. While the entrance could be quite imposing, with the box-office generally at the top of a flight of white marble steps, presumably to accommodate the rake, the auditorium itself was often not much more than a hangar, the aisle carpeted but the seats on lino or even bare concrete. Wartime meant there was no ice-cream but en route to the cinema we would call at a sweet shop and get what Dad called ‘some spice’, provided, of course, we had the points, sweet rationing the most irksome of wartime restrictions and still in force as late as 1952, when I went into the Army.
As a family we always went to the first house, which ended around 8.10, with the second-house queue waiting as we came out, scanning our faces for a clue to the experience we had just had, much as, I imagine, soldiers did when queuing outside a brothel. The second-house crowd seemed to me more loose-living than we were, raffish even. It certainly included more courting couples and folks who liked a drink (and who might even have had one already), none of whom minded rolling home at the to us unheard-of hour of half-past ten.
The waiting (and the Second World War involved a good deal of waiting in every department) was generally done up the side of the cinema in a grim open-sided arcade that today would be drenched in urine but wasn’t then. If the cinema was full and the performance continuous the commissionaire would come down the queue shouting: ‘Two at 1/9;’ ‘A single at 2/3.’ Or (very seldom): ‘Seats in all parts.’
We always called it ‘the pictures’, seldom ‘the cinema’ and never ‘the movies’. To this day I don’t find it easy to say ‘movies’, ‘going to the pictures’ still the phrase that comes to me most naturally, though nowadays I’m not sure that ‘the pictures’, like ‘the wireless’, aren’t among the self-consciously adopted emblems of fogeydom, the verbal equivalent of those smart Covent Garden establishments that do a line in old luggage. But calling the pictures ‘the movies’ went with calling cigarettes ‘fags’, beer ‘booze’ or girls ‘birds’. It signalled a relaxed, unbuttoned approach to things, life led with more of a dash than I was ever going to manage.
Picture-going was generally a family affair, but when we were still quite young, at eight or nine, say, we were allowed to go to U films by ourselves and (with a bit of nagging) to A films too. Since the A signified that a child could only see the film when accompanied by an adult this meant hanging about outside the cinema accosting congenial-looking cinema-goers, preferably women, with ‘Can you take us in, please?’ Warning us often, every time we left the house it almost seemed, against ‘stopping with strange men’, my mother never liked my brother and me to go to the pictures on our own, but only once did I come to any harm and then not really.
In 1944 we had moved, disastrously as it turned out, from Leeds to Guildford, where we stayed for a year, so at that time I would be ten, and had persuaded my mother one afternoon to let me go see Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk, which I’d seen in Armley but was now showing at the Palace in Onslow Street (closed in 1956 to become a bingo hall and currently a nightclub called The Drink). I hung about for a bit until a genial middle-aged man in glasses came along with one boy in tow already. This seemed to indicate respectability and I was about to ask him if he would take me in when he got in first, even taking my hand before shepherding us both past the box-office; he may even have paid.
The film had already started, Errol Flynn flirting with Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth while the usherette showed us down the aisle and before we had even sat down the man was pinching me and remarking on my nice chubby legs. This seemed fairly boring to me as, so far as I was concerned, they were just legs, but I put up with it for the sake of Errol Flynn, who soon after we sat down was away on the Spanish Main. However, the clutching and the pinching was getting more urgent until, innocent though I was, it dawned on me that this must be what Mam’s mysterious warnings had been about.
The sight of Errol Flynn now chained to an oar in the Spanish galleys seemed to bring these claspings to a new pitch of urgency and I decided, as they moved higher up my legs, that I ought to make a break for it. So I got up and, foolishly, headed not up the aisle to the foyer but down the aisle to the Gents where, not surprisingly, my admirer followed. Once there, I didn’t hide in a cubicle but just stood waiting, not knowing what to do.
I see myself standing in that cinema lavatory and hearing the bang of the swing-door as this kindly, bespectacled man, now suddenly sinister, comes through the door in pursuit. The entrance to the Gents was also the back door to the Exit and my admirer stood there for a second, obviously wondering if I had fled the cinema altogether. There was a moment, which in a film would hardly seem credible, when he stood with his back to me trying to decide if I’d gone. Had he turned and looked down the steps to the lavatory he would have seen me. But he didn’t turn, and obviously deciding it would be prudent to leave, he pushed the bar and went out through the exit door.
I wish I could record that I went back and watched the finish of the film but I just hung about for a few minutes until the coast was clear, then (though nothing had happened to me) ran home in mild distress. I told my mother, who became satisfyingly hysterical, but Dad, a shy and fastidious man who I knew regarded me as a liar and a show-off, was just made angry, refusing even to believe anything had happened and, if it had, ‘It was all nowt.’ Certainly I hadn’t been damaged, and if damage was done at all it was only in Dad’s refusal to acknowledge the situation. As it was, the only lasting effect of the incident was to put paid to any further lone visits to the cinema and to teach me to keep quiet. One’s legs often got felt up as a child. Dad’s old headmaster, Mr Alexander, used to give us lessons in algebra and he was a great stroker and clutcher, though only of the legs and not the parts appertaining. Vicars did it too, without seeming to want to take it further. It was something I came to expect, and just another of the ways in which grown-ups were boring.
The stars of the films seen in childhood had an unreality and a glamour no stars have ever had since. It was inconceivable that their world should ever impinge on ours, though occasionally, almost miraculously, it did. That I can remember the deaths both of Leslie Howard and of Carole Lombard chalked up on the newspaper-sellers’ boards in City Square hardly counts. But there was the afternoon sometime in the 1940s when I was out shopping with Mam and we were walking up Thornton’s Arcade and saw coming down a vast man with a much smaller friend in tow, like a whale and its pilot fish. He was wearing his coat slung around his shoulders just as I’m sure we’d seen him in the cinema when he was the Gestapo chief in Pimpernel Smith and, if it was in the late 1940s we would have seen him as Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist and Jaggers in Great Expectations. It was Francis L. Sullivan, whose huge bulk must have been gracing the stage of the Grand that week, though we did not know it, thinking only that a creature from the celestial realms of film had materialised in, of all places, Leeds. We rushed home to tell Dad, who, predictably, was not much impressed.
Another brush with Hollywood came one morning in Manfield’s Shoe Shop on Commercial Street, where Mam’s older sister, Kathleen, was the manageress (this was what she claimed anyway, though she may just have been the oldest female assistant). An urbane figure slipped into the shop (and I see him, too, with a camel-hair coat draped round his shoulders and even a cigarette-holder). Aunty (or ‘Miss Peel’, as she was known in the shop) took charge, and I see her perched sideways on one of those low pentagonal stools on the sloping rubberised side of which the customer placed his or her foot, over which Aunty’s head would be reverently bent about to unlace the shoe. Coyly she looks up. ‘Have I,’ she says in those exaggeratedly correct tones of which she was so proud and which marked her out as a professional woman, ‘Have I the pleasure of serving Mr Ronald Colman?’
Whereupon Mr Ronald Colman (and God forgive him) looks most put out, says ‘No,’ and strides out into Commercial Street. Of course had Aunty had more sense she would have waited until she had his shoe off, then his departure would have been necessarily less prompt. But there was no disguising the awfulness of the rebuff; it was so unmistakable that I’m surprised she was ready to retail the circumstances. But she had seen – and indeed touched – Ronald Colman and there was no gainsaying that. Still, I think even Dad, who was her sternest critic, felt a little sorry for her, believing that the Ronald Colman whom we had seen on the screen (in Lost Horizon, for instance, or Random Harvest) would have had more manners.
Except that now, telling the story, I can’t be sure that it was Ronald Colman and not Robert Donat, who was certainly more likely to be in Leeds and indeed in England and who was known to be shy (and, as Mam said, ‘a martyr to asthma’) and therefore more likely to bolt from the shop.
Cherished and admired as a local boy was Eric Portman, who had made good while playing with ‘the amateurs’. More robust than Donat, he was always said to have worked at a gents’ outfitters in Halifax where the aunties may even have claimed to have seen him behind the counter. Then he’d joined the Rep before becoming a star. James Mason was another local boy who had made good, though from what beginnings I wasn’t sure: maybe he’d worked in a gents’ outfitters too.
‘Making good’ meant getting out, as you would have to do if you were going to be a film star, but which applied to literature too, the success of J.B. Priestley and, at a later date, John Braine evinced by their brisk departure from their Bradford birthplace. In this respect the Brontë Sisters (Mam had seen the films, though she’d not read the books) were thought to be tragic figures, not on account of their bleak upbringing or their short lives, but because, so far as Mam knew anyway, they had never escaped from that terrible parsonage and stayed put in Haworth all their lives. For both Mam and Dad there was always a sense in which success could be summed up as a one-way ticket to King’s Cross.
Film actors inevitably came trailing remnants of their previous roles, memories of other films in which they had figured and the inclinations of the characters they usually played. For a child at the cinema this was a help; there was not much ambiguity to be had and certainly with the masculine roles whether this was a goody or a baddy pretty soon became apparent, or was apparent already because the actor concerned had played more or less the same part in a film one had seen the previous week. Female roles were less easy to assess because love or passion were often motivating factors and at the age of ten both were a bit of a mystery to me. Generally, though, where the actors stood on the moral scale was as plain as if they were characters out of a fairy story. We knew what they would do long before they did it, whatever the plot their roles in it fixed and immutable; they had no need to unpack their belongings: as soon as they showed their faces on the screen one knew what they had brought. There was a certain leeway in the details: the wicked but outwardly respectable businessman might be fond of art or dote on his pretty daughter, the lawyer a bit of a dandy, the killer fond of cats, but these were ornaments, decorations, and in the fixed moral scheme of films in the 1930s and 1940s they did not alter the story but were just the accessories to costumes that were always off the same peg.
What puzzled me about villains was why, when they were masquerading as respectable citizens, their essential no-goodness wasn’t as obvious to people on the screen as it was to me in the stalls. How could Pinocchio be so stupid as to be led astray by the patently wicked Fox, or Snow White not know the Queen was up to no good? Had the Queen been flesh and blood and not a cartoon she might well have been played by Joan Crawford, who was always something of an enigma to me. I never liked her, and with her gaunt face, protruding eyes and instinct for melodrama she seemed the embodiment of evil, yet she was often cast in the role of heroine. Even if she managed during the span of the film to convince me of her goodness and all ended happily I felt it was only a matter of time before somewhere in the film’s after-life she would emerge in her true colours, grasping, selfish and (because she was like a man) a thoroughgoing rotter.
Claude Rains was another puzzle. He was determinedly silky and seldom unsmiling, sure signs that he was a baddy, though not always. There was the analyst in Now, Voyager or, more ambiguously, the Vichy police chief in Casablanca, ironic, twinkling and an advert for pragmatism. I wish the lesson I derived from these divergences from what I saw as the norm had been that people weren’t always what they seemed, but probably I just wished they’d make their minds up.
Old Mother Riley apart, there weren’t many funny women. I didn’t go for Gracie Fields nor did I understand why when she appeared everybody suddenly burst out singing – songs in films always something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Still, Gracie Fields in her Northern-mill epics and excursions to Blackpool was preferable to those gloomy, haunted heroines racked by passion and driven by concerns I didn’t understand and who cropped up far too often for my taste. There was Ida Lupino, who always seemed to be either blind or confined to a wheelchair; Barbara Stanwyck, who seemed to want to be a man and certainly behaved like one; and the wholesome but plain Jane Wyman, who, on account of the plainness and wholesomeness, could be relied on in the end to get her man, homespun values always winning out against brittle sophistication.
The supreme exponent of brittle sophistication was Bette Davis, and for my aunties in particular she was someone to emulate. With her clipped tones, raised eyebrow and mocking smile Bette was a standard-bearer for shop assistants everywhere and in the 1940s you could find her presiding over the counters of the smarter shops – Marshall and Snelgrove, Matthias Robinson or, in my aunties’ case, Manfield’s Shoe Shop and White’s Ladies Gowns. The Davis manner, bored, sceptical, sarcastic, was particularly effective when ‘chalking people off’, as Mam called it. It was something she never had enough self-confidence to do herself but which her worldlier sisters saw as their professional duty, some sheepish Hunslet housewife trying to force her bunioned feet into a narrow 7 finding herself hardly helped by Aunty Kathleen doing her Manfield version of Bette Davis as Mrs Skeffington. When Aunty Myra joined the Waafs and went off to India that was Bette Davis too, a Leeds version of Now, Voyager, though I doubt that Aunty Myra ever had her Craven A lit by someone as refined as Paul Henreid, Australian lance-corporals more her line of thing.
If not quite on the same footing as Davis or Crawford there were a whole string of tall, elegant ‘professional women’ who were stars in their own right: Alexis Smith, Rosalind Russell, Eve Arnold – women who could perch casually on the edge of an editorial desk, toss one long silk-stockinged leg over the other while lighting a cigarette or consulting a powder compact. Graceful and expensive as racehorses, they were amused, ironic and sceptical; they wrote columns in papers, edited magazines and were funny about love and romance with men just their playthings.
Mam can scarcely have thought she inhabited the same universe as these seen-twice-weekly stars and that any of us would ever come across them in the flesh was as unlikely as coming across Gulliver pegged out in Gott’s Park or Horatio keeping the bridge over the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. When, years later, I was playing in Beyond the Fringe on Broadway and wrote home to say I had actually met Rosalind Russell and Alexis Smith and a host of others besides, my weekly letters listing these encounters must have seemed like a reprise of those dark, wet wartime nights twenty years before when we all used to go to the pictures together.
Sometimes the setting of these encounters was backstage at the Golden Theatre on 45th Street, where Beyond the Fringe was lodged for its Broadway run, but more often than not it was the Central Park West apartment of Arnold Weissberger, partner in the firm of Weissberger and Frosch, showbiz lawyers and accountants. Aaron Frosch was the muscle in the firm (and looked it) whereas Arnold seemed to do nothing except throw parties, to which would be invited everybody currently appearing on Broadway or visiting New York from London or Hollywood. The cast was, therefore, staggering and I have never since been in rooms so stiff with celebrity.
What did one say to Henry Fonda or Joan Fontaine? How do you start a conversation with Judy Holliday and not mention Born Yesterday (an error I fell into)? How be casual with Katharine Hepburn or do anything but gaze at Steve McQueen?
My best plan, I found, was to make a mental note of who was there so that I could write home that night, then go and get some food at the vast buffet and gracefully retire. But it often turned out that the nicest people were at the buffet, or at any rate people who were more interested in eating than talking and who thus presented less of a social peril. Charles Boyer, for example, who was appearing next door to us on 45th Street in Rattigan’s Man and Boy. With Leslie Howard he had been a particular heart-throb of Mam’s. Now, napkin tucked under his chin and in that all too imitable accent in which he’d said farewell to Ingrid Bergman in Arch of Triumph, he pointed out which of the salads came up to scratch. Actually Ingrid Bergman was there, too, somewhere.
Such ancient icons, stars who might now be in decline but who had shone in the cinema of my childhood, were to me far more glamorous than their current counterparts. Here was Maureen O’Sullivan whom I’d last seen as Tarzan’s Jane in a skirt of palm leaves swinging through the jungly fronds in the arms of Johnny Weismuller. Twenty years later, her star shone less brightly, though in reflected glory it would shortly rise again, for she was here with her daughter, a waif of extraordinary beauty wandering round the room as if somehow on offer; it was Mia Farrow, her mother therefore the mother-in-law to be of Frank Sinatra, and later still the tigerish adversary of Woody Allen.
Lauren Bacall, Gene Tierney, Laraine Day: here they all were in the un-cinematographic flesh, more worn perhaps than when we had first met in the ninepennies. But still cool, still sceptical (and still smoking, very often), though they were grandmothers now as they piled their plates at the buffet table. How say I had last seen them aged eight at the Picturedrome on Wortley Road, though I fear I sometimes tried – to be met with a patient, practised smile.
Arnold Weissberger was a keen photographer, at any rate of celebrities. Indeed, he later published a book of photographs of the famous people in his life. You might hope to get away from the party unobserved but Arnold would have spotted you and followed you into the bedroom where the coats were left. Following him would come his tiny mother, who seldom left Arnold’s side. And there, sometimes with his mother, he would snap you looking slightly startled and with the mountain of coats in the background. Thus it is I have a photograph of myself, just having put on my coat, and beside me is Joan Collins, though this was before she was Joan Collins and so not someone worth writing home about.
There were parties, too, when Arnold came to London, generally with his long-time partner, Milton Goldman. They were held in the Savoy and were notorious for being graded according to reputation: the most famous or the eminently successful were invited on the A night, the less so on the B night and on the C night one could practically wander in from the street. I only once made the A night, shortly after Forty Years On had opened. The Burtons were there: it was not long after their marriage (or one of their marriages) and not seeing a chair handy Elizabeth Taylor, whom I had met in John Gielgud’s dressing-room at the theatre, perched briefly on my knee.
This was for me such an atypical situation that I find myself wondering whether I am recalling it correctly: did she sit on my knee or did I sit on hers? But this cannot have been (how would I have dared?), though I’m sure her knee would have been more comfortable than mine.
Oddly, this was not the first time I had figured in the Burton story and in a curiously similar capacity. When we had been in New York playing Beyond the Fringe we had got to know Burton’s first (or at any rate current) wife, Sybil. She was jolly, domestic, very Welsh and living in a vast apartment on the West Side. One Sunday in 1963 she phoned and asked me if I would go with her to a film premiere at the 59th Street cinema.
Whatever partner she had been planning to go with must have cried off. I doubt it was Burton himself: he and Sybil were long past picture-going by this time. It would probably have been somebody Welsh, as the evening had a strong Celtic flavour, the film being The Criminal with Stanley Baker. What I did not know, but presumably she did, was that this was the day Burton had chosen to announce his divorce from Sibyl. It followed that her companion had to be chosen with care, had not to be someone with whom Sybil could conceivably be thought of as conducting a liaison of her own.
Had I even the smallest liaison potential and certainly had I been something (or indeed anything) of a hunk my presence would have been noted by the columnists who were in the audience and the photographers who were outside. As it was, nobody even noticed me: Sybil might have been there by herself. Nor was there any going on to supper or the party afterwards. I slipped away, leaving Sybil to Stanley Baker and other expatriate Celts.
In retrospect I see these two brushes with the Burtons as having a certain symmetry. One wife hitting on me as a suitably flavourless companion for the evening, the other sitting on me as a knee that would raise no eyebrows, both made me a prop in the drama of lives far more interesting and celebrated than my own. I was, it should be said, an entirely willing prop, flattered to have had even such a small part to play in this legendary love story. Such brushes with the famous do have a name. That Elizabeth Taylor once sat on my knee is what in the Edwardian slang of the Baring family would have been called ‘a Shelley plain’ (after Browning’s ‘did you once see Shelley plain?’), an unlooked for and even incongruous contact with the great.
However that was not why the evening stuck in my memory, as I remember little of the film or of Sybil’s mood or whether I even knew of the events in which I was playing a walk-on part. What made my heart beat faster was that while Sybil, the about to be ex-Mrs Burton, was sitting on my right, on my left was sitting Myrna Loy.
I had no notion as a child that going to the pictures was a kind of education, or that I was absorbing a twice-weekly lesson in morality. The first film I remember being thought of as ‘improving’ was Henry V which, during our brief sojourn in Guildford, was playing permanently at Studio I at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street. I saw it, though, with my primary school at the local Odeon in Guildford, and that it was meant to be educational did not stop it being, for me, magical, particularly the transition from the confines and painted scenery of the Globe to the realities of the siege and battlefield in France. The reverse process had the same effect so that the final cut back to the Globe and the actors lining up for their call still gives me a thrill.
Seeing films one also saw – always saw – the newsreels, though only one remains in my memory. It would have been some time in 1945 and it was at the Playhouse, a cinema down Guildford High Street. Before the newsreel began there was an announcement that scenes in it were unsuitable for children, and that they should be taken out. None was; having already waited long enough in the queue nobody was prepared to give up their hard-won seat. It was, of course, the discovery of Belsen with the living corpses, the mass graves and the line-up of the sullen guards. There were cries of horror in the cinema, though my recollection is that Mam and Dad were much more upset than my brother and me. Still, Belsen was not a name one ever forgot and became a place of horror long before Auschwitz.
The moral instruction to be had at the cinema was seldom as shocking as this: just a slow absorption of assumptions not so much about life as about lives, all of them far removed from one’s own. There were cowboys’ lives, for instance, where the dilemmas could be quite complex and moralities might compete: small-town morality v. the morality of the gunfighter, with the latter more perilous and demanding of heroism, with High Noon perhaps its ultimate demonstration. There was the lesson of standing up to the bully, a tale told in lots of guises: in Westerns, obviously, but also in historical films – Fire over England, A Tale of Two Cities and The Young Mr Pitt all told the same story of gallant little England squaring up to the might of France or Spain, for which, of course, read Germany.
Then there were the unofficial heroes: dedicated doctors, single-minded schoolteachers, or saints convinced of their vision (I am thinking particularly of The Song of Bernadette, a film that had me utterly terrified). Always in such films it was the official wisdom v. the lone voice and one knew five minutes into the film what the hero or heroine (star anyway) was going to be up against. I suppose one of the reasons Casablanca or Citizen Kane stand out above the rest is that their morality was less straightforward. Empson never, I think, wrote about film but there are many the plot of which this describes:
The web of European civilisation seems to have been strung between the ideas of Christianity and those of a half-secret rival, centring perhaps (if you made it a system) round honour: one that stresses pride rather than humility, self-realisation rather than self-denial, caste rather than either the communion of saints or the individual soul.
It was a rivalry I was familiar with because it was always cropping up at the Picturedrome.
Banal though the general run of films was, I learned, as one learned in fairy stories, about good and evil and how to spot them: the good where one would expect only degradation and squalor, and the treachery and cowardice to be traced in the haunts of respectability. I learned about the occasional kindness of villains and the regular intransigence of saints, but the abiding lesson had to do with the perils of prominence. I came out into Wortley Road grateful that, unlike Charles Boyer, we were not called on to stand up against the Nazi oppressor or battle like Jennifer Jones against the small-mindedness of nuns or like Cornel Wilde cough blood over the piano keys in order to liberate our country from the foreign yoke. Films taught you to be happy that you were ordinary.
Ordinary but not respectable, because in films respectable generally meant cowardly and there were other perils besides. One character who was always cropping up seemed the embodiment of respectability and was often played by the same actor. Not a star (I have had to look up his name), he was called Thurston Hall. With his bright white hair and substantial frame he looked not unlike the local doctors in Upper Wortley, Dr Moneys and Dr Slaney, figures of some weight and even grandeur in the neighbourhood. Thurston Hall did play doctors from time to time but more often than not he was a businessman, highly thought of in the community, a person of unimpeachable morals who was ultimately revealed to be a crook. Kind to children, a president of orphanages, a donor of playing fields and a guarantor of symphony halls, he is prominent in every good cause. But the committee of charitable ladies who can always rely on him for a generous contribution would be surprised to learn that the money comes indirectly out of the pockets of their husbands, paid over to the many prostitutes of the city or in its poker dens and illicit drinking clubs, behind all of which is this impeccably mannered, immaculately suited villain.
That such a character in a film today would seem quite old-fashioned is the fault of the times. Villainy these days is more complicated and communities don’t have pillars in quite the way they did. Two-faced respectability operates best in a setting of accepted values and that setting began to break up, so far as the cinema was concerned, sometime in the late 1950s, with one of its minor legacies for me a lifelong distrust of well-groomed, impressive middle-aged men. When I saw General Pinochet on one of his London jaunts I picked him out as a villain simply from the films I had seen in the 1940s.
To know that one is being taught a lesson or at any rate given a message leaves one free to reject it if only by dismissing plot or characters as clichés. But I had not realised how far the moral assumptions of film story-telling had sunk in, and how long they had stayed with me, until in 1974 I saw Louis Malle’s film about the French Occupation, Lacombe Lucien. Lucien is a loutish, unappealing boy, recruited almost by accident into the French Fascist Milice. He falls in with and exploits a Jewish family, becoming involved with – it would be wrong to say falling in love with – the daughter whom he helps to escape and with whom he lives. Then, as the Liberation draws near, he becomes himself a fugitive and is eventually almost casually shot.
The stock way to tell such a story would be to see the boy’s experiences – witnessing torture and ill-treatment, falling for the Jewish girl – as a moral education in the same way, for example, that the Marlon Brando character is educated in On the Waterfront. That would be the convention, and one I’d so much taken for granted that I kept looking in the Malle film for signs of this instruction in the school of life beginning to happen. But it doesn’t. Largely untouched by the dramas he has passed through Lucien is much the same at the end of the film as he is at the beginning, seemingly having learned nothing. To have quite unobtrusively resisted the tug of conventional tale-telling and the lure of resolution seemed to me honest in a way few films even attempt.