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October 21, 2008

Two early films by Alexander Mackendrick

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Whisky Galore!/Tight Little Island
Alexander Mackendrick - 1949

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The Maggie
Alexander Mackendrick - 1954
both Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD

Recent discussion on Sweet Smell of Success was a reminder that I should see the earlier available films by Alexander Mackendrick. While on the surface, it may have appeared odd to some that a Scotch director would film a story based in New York City, there as aspects to the earlier films that make the connection logical. The use of extreme angles, the framing of faces, the pictorial compositions of the locations, the respect towards his characters no matter how wrong-headed, and the use of vernacular dialogue are some of the links between Whisky Galore! and Sweet Smell of Success. Add to that the conflict of personal gratification versus the perceived or real needs of a community. The need for scandal or celebrity news is as temporal as the need for alcohol.

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While the citizens of the small Scottish town connive their way to stealing the cargo of hundreds of cases of liquor for their dry community from a ship that crashed ashore in the fog, The Maggie offers a small crew conning their way to stay afloat. The boat of the title is a small dilapidated barge that takes on a job of ferrying several large crates for American tycoon Paul Douglas when no other boats are available. The day "The Maggie" is to be declared unseaworthy, the job is snagged by opportunity and a few fibs. Every attempt by Douglas and the shipping company to correct the error is met by "The Maggie"'s skipper and crew using every possible trick to complete the job in order to earn the needed three hundred pounds. Even when Douglas goes along for the ride, he comes to reassess the value placed on his merchandise. While the citizens of Barra and the crew of "The Maggie" can be considered more sympathetic, as well as obviously comic, Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success might be considered to have the same kind of ethos, in a more raw and desperate form.

While Falco could be viewed as a descendant of the playful characters from Whisky Galore! and The Maggie, there is also the corollary characters that would be seen most brutally in the form of J.J. Hunsecker. Captain Wagett attempts to control activity on the island in the unlikely event of a German invasion in Whisky Galore!. As the local military commander, he is also responsible for preventing the whisky from being stolen by the townspeople. In The Maggie, Paul Douglas portrays an airline magnate who finds his sense of control taken out from under him both by incompetent underlings and crew of "The Maggie". In all three films, the men find that whatever sense of control they had in their particular realms is an illusion. Unlike Wagett or Hunsecker, Paul Douglas' character of Calvin Marshall gives in to the chaos, at first reluctantly, finally surrendering to his temporary situation.

It is probably worth noting that in theory, the film director is suppose to be the person with the greatest authority, while Mackendrick's career can be viewed as that of filmmaker who constantly lost control, finally leaving Hollywood. At the same time, I'm not sure if anyone other than Burt Lancaster really wanted to see a film version of G. B. Shaw's The Devil's Disciple, while a Mackendrick version of The Guns of Navarone is difficult to imagine. What is known is that Mackendrick's last three films were not seen as intended by the director. Reunited with Ealing producer Michael Balcon, Sammy Going South can hopefully be restored on DVD with a version longer than the 88 minute cut for U.S. theaters. The theatrical version of High Wind in Jamaica will probably be the only version we will know. His recent autobiography may renew interest in films starring Tony Curtis, but a DVD version of Don't Make Waves remains to be seen. The film that was intended to be Los Angeles answer to Sweet Smell of Success was recut but MGM and proved as unpopular at the box office. Even though Mackendrick has gone on record as criticizing the notion of the director as auteur, one can still see continuity in both assignments accepted as well as the films originating from the director, in the characters, and the visual style. In this respect, The Maggie can be viewed as almost autobiographical, as the story of a filmmaker who tried to sneak in personal elements into the films he had the opportunity to make, and the director who finally walked away rather than constantly battling the more powerful studio chiefs and movie stars.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 21, 2008 12:00 PM


Love both The Maggie and Whisky Galore!

Mandy too

Posted by: harkin at October 23, 2008 08:06 PM