BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - Go to Blazes / DVD Review

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year is Michael Truman's Go to Blazes (1962) and the London Comedy Film Festival will be giving a special screening at the BFI on January 29th, the day before its first ever release on DVD. Described by StudioCanal as a 'classic British comedy' and 'a lost gem', it emerged in the wake of a number of similar films, often attempting to capture something of the Ealing spirit, which cast the criminal class as rebellious heroes, forever seeking ways of continuing their habitual behaviour and subverting the establishment. In this genre we can see Go to Blazes as a companion to comedy films like Too Many Crooks (1959), Two Way Stretch (1960), The Wrong Arm of the Law (1962), Crooks in Cloisters (1963) and The Big Job (1965).

Go to Blazes was a production made at Elstree by Associated British Picture Corporation. ABPC not only made films at British studios but it also had the power to distribute them through the partnership it had with Warners and the ABC chain of cinemas which they owned. By the late 1950s, its film production was on the wane and it had turned its attention to television production at Elstree. Through its commercial television arm, ABC, it would go on to produce The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Avengers among many others and would eventually merge with Rediffusion to form Thames Television. Similarly to Rank, ABPC produced or co-financed a number of low budget films per year using a contract system of actors. It had its most notable successes in the early 1950s with The Dam Busters (1954) and Ice Cold in Alex (1958) but by the end of the decade was concentrating on comedies and 'teen' films.

The film's producer Kenneth Harper had a reasonable track record, having just produced The Young Ones (1961), a number of films with one of ABPC's most prolific directors, J. Lee Thompson (including the aforementioned Ice Cold in Alex and the acclaimed Diana Dors vehicle from 1956, Yield to the Night), Terence Young and Rudolph Cartier. Director Michael Truman had built a respectable career as producer and editor at Ealing, having worked on several of the films that Go to Blazes rather unsuccessfully harks back to, the crime caper and comedy stylings of The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers and Whisky Galore! Truman remains something of an anonymity. He is known to have entered the industry in 1934, then went on to produce training films for the army during the war and then joined Ealing as an editor in 1944. He worked on a number of films as editor, including Passport to Pimlico, became associate producer on The Lavender Hill Mob and then producer on Ealing classics The Titfield Thunderbolt and The Maggie.

The screenwriters were Patrick Campbell and Vivienne Knight. Campbell was a well known humourist and would later be known as a team captain opposite Frank Muir in Call My Bluff, having succeeded one of the stars of Go to Blazes, Robert Morley. Vivienne had been a publicist on most of the major Powell and Pressburger film collaborations and both she and Campbell would go on to write The Girl in the Headlines (1963) which was Truman's only other film as director, apart from Touch and Go (1955) made at Ealing. Campbell married Knight in 1966.
"everything stops for a fire engine"
The opening sequence of the film acts as a set up to its premise. After three crooks, Alfie (Norman Rossington), Bernard (Dave King) and Harry (Daniel Massey), complete a smash and grab raid on a high street jewellers the police, led by David Lodge's tenacious Sergeant, catch the villains in a sudden traffic jam as the vehicles ahead of their getaway car make way for a fire engine. The three men are already depicted as habitual criminal failures even before they are sentenced to two years and thrown in the back of a Black Maria. It is only when Alfie casually remarks that "everything stops for a fire engine" that they hit upon the brainwave to commit their next felony disguised as firemen with a fire engine standing in as their getaway vehicle.

After their release (with Arthur Lowe as the warder seeing them off HMP premises) they set out to put their plan into action. An abortive attempt to purchase a new fire engine from a gleaming showroom (run by one of British film's great bumbling comic reliefs, the scene stealing Miles Malleson) leaves the salesman re-enacting his childhood driving a vintage fire engine and the gang having to turn to theft (or is that a straight swap with a scrap engine) in order to secure their choice of fire engine.

However the best laid plans of men and fire engines don't always prove to be fool proof. Their first attempt to smash and grab a jewellers (with much made of the London locations as Alfie and Bernard drive the fire engine through Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square) fails as Harry is forced to hide from the police Sergeant, who arrested the gang earlier, in Colette's couture fashion showroom belonging to the said Colette (Coral Browne) and run with her assistant Chantal (Maggie Smith). While Harry is the butt of several jokes about the "eternal male" from Colette, the fire engine and its crew is meanwhile called to the aid of 'fish fancier' Derek Nimmo whose basement flat has flooded and who impatiently declaims to the fake firemen, "Well, don't just stand there, get yer pump out!" as his tropical fish collection is submerged.

Until this point the film has been a fairly gentle caper. When Bernard realises they need to learn how to be proper firemen it's time to bring in Robert Morley as Eddie 'the Professor', a criminal boffin with a firestarter complex who finds novel ways of starting fires for his client's insurance jobs. Morley, like many of the comic actors making cameos in the film, livens the proceedings up whenever he's on screen. He's joined by Dennis Price as disgraced fire chief Withers, whose reputation is somewhat tarnished when he's discovered using fires as a handy way of acquiring certain luxuries like Savile Row suits and camel hair coats. Price capitalises on his well established suave insouciance as Withers and along with Morley is certainly one of the highlights of the film. When the gang decide to set a fire in Colette's in order to break into the bank next door, Morley visits the showroom to prepare his incendiaries and there is a delicious sequence of physical comedy between him, Browne and Smith as every attempt to set fire to the place is inadvertently thwarted by the two women. 

It is only when the bogus firemen arrive to douse the flames and rob the bank that Chantal understands the nature of the subterfuge as she spots Harry on the fire engine, the 'Lord Hamilton' who has been dating her since he stumbled into the couturier's premises. This underlines one of the many subtexts of the film about identity and class. The criminals not only masquerade as figures of authority, wherein thieves become firemen and arsonists are promoted to professors to reflect the decline of deference between the lower and upper classes, but they also expose a further layer in the perceptions of class and identity. 

Harry is not 'Lord Hamilton' but still regards his colleagues as 'the workers' when visually he is the bowler hatted gentleman in contrast to Bernard's figure of the spiv and Alfie's representation of foolish rogue. This difference between the men is first spoofed in the fire engine showroom when Harry pretends to be a Scottish laird looking to purchase a vehicle for his estate where Alfie and Bernard allegedly work as "my gillie and my beater." Identity, class and authority are doubly subverted when Bernard cases Colette's salon disguised as a police inspector and Eddie returns to it masquerading as Edward Mountbatten (no relation, apparently). Later, Colette recognises Bernard and Eddie when they turn up to put the fire out and raises the suspicions of the police Sergeant played by David Lodge. The subverting of class and institutions such as the police and fire services is something of a parallel to similar themes in the successful series of Doctor films of the period and the somewhat more raucous trajectory of the Carry On series. 
"the criminal, like other professionals, works within the hierarchies of a traditional system"
Even though the film was made in 1961 it really reflects the previous decade. This class stratification is both a witty comment on how obsessed 1950s society had become about class and mobility and a retrenchment of pre-war class values that is used by characters take on new identities, without a qualm, in order to deflect deference. As Christine Geraghty notes in British Cinema in the Fifties: Gender, Genre and the 'New Look', "criminal comedies such as these provide fruitful material in considering how questions of class and merit are being made sense of and joked about in the late 1950s. Class characteristics indeed give the working class criminals an opportunity to outmanoeuvre those who are apparently above them in the system."

The post-war milieu is also epitomised by the two city gents decrying the lack of discipline and loss of Empire while onlooking as the gang abandon their attempts to help Nimmo's character. It is also revealed that Chantal is not the French girl she pretends to be when in a discussion with Colette about the poor state of their business her accent vanishes and a rougher, working class woman emerges as she suggests they burn the collection and collect the insurance, underlining the comedic way criminal activity in the film is portrayed as integral to the decade's gradual awakening from gender and social strictures. Little do they know that Eddie is about to take Chantal up on the idea of burning the place down.

The fashions at Colette's are aimed at the female classes that enjoy Ascot and Goodwood and Chantal's 'mock French' identity is perhaps a comment about the impact of Paris fashion and the 'New Look' introduced by Christian Dior. This is reflected in the parade of dresses presented to Eddie, as he pretends to be Mountbatten and offers to purchase the collection, and suggests that Colette and Chantal are representative of the post war period's attempts to re-situate women back into the domestic environment just as they were being recruited into the workforce in increasing numbers. 

It's also worth noting the visual motifs of post-war reconstruction that inhabit the film. Director Turner chose to shoot in widescreen and in Technicolour, mainly on location, to perhaps underline that the film was intended to be a boisterous, colourful depiction of a country that had finally left rationing behind. The comedy emerges against a backdrop of highly recognisable (and exportable) London locations. On a number of occasions you can spot the rebuilding of the war-damaged city that was well under way and the spirit of new construction is no better emphasised in the brief sight of what looks like the building of the Hammersmith Flyover in 1961 as the gang and their fire engine make their escape with the loot out of the city.

Go to Blazes is an example of a British comedy film of the period which Geraghty suggests, "imagines that the criminal, like other professionals, works within the hierarchies of a traditional system and so draws him into the traditional, class-based world of the British state." The film seems to have been lost in the hinterland between the harder, political satire of earlier British films like Private's Progress (1956) and I'm Alright Jack (1959), its contemporary bedfellows like The Wrong Arm of the Law and the emergent Carry On cycle that had already seen the release of four films Carry On Sergeant... Nurse... Teacher, and Constable before 1962. The problem is that, at the same time, it tries to reflect the legacy of Ealing and sadly fails to recapture its spirit. What we end up with is a gentle caper, perhaps too gentle even for its own times, full of great British comedy actors such as Rossington, Price, Morley, Nimmo, Malleson, Lowe and Le Mesurier (blink and you'll miss both of the Dad's Army stars) and early appearances from Maggie Smith and Daniel Massey. Worth it to watch Robert Morley and Dennis Price steal the entire film, this film is best relegated to a rainy Sunday afternoon's viewing.

About the transfer
Go to Blazes is in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and represented in a fairly average transfer. It's Technicolour palette is a bit jaded looking here and there, with some colour quite vibrant at times, and the picture quality is soft and grainy. John Addison's jaunty score, a persistently chirpy little jangle that often threatens to suffocate the film, might leave you in a state of anguish after continually signalling to you the scenes where you should laugh heartily (or not).

Go to Blazes
Associated British Picture Corporation 1962
StudioCanal / Released 30 January 2012 / Cert: U / 80 mins approx / Format: 2.35:1 Anamorphic PAL / Audio: English Mono DD2.0 / Subtitles: English HOH / Region 2


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