The BFI once again delve into their archive in January and pick out further fascinating evidence that British film making took some very interesting left-turns in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Two films by Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq are released on Dual Format Edition Blu-ray and DVD this month.

In the early 1970s, after Wilson had been forced to devalue the pound, Heath had replaced him and the optimism of the previous decade came to a crashing halt, foreign investors, including many of the major US studios, all abandoned the British film industry. Many indigenous film makers continued to plough their own course and Canadians Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq, the creative team behind the revelatory Duffer and The Moon Over the Alley, demonstrated the very idiosyncratic nature of the films emerging from the decade.

Duffer (1971)

Duffer is, quite simply, an extraordinary film. A grainy, black and white peer beneath the floorboards of a tarnished London that was definitely the opposite of 'swinging' and where the psychedelic dream of the 1960s had become a nightmare. Indeed, as the title character Duffer (played in the film by Kit Gleave but given speech and thought by Dumaresq himself on the film's idiosyncratic soundtrack) sits on the riverside, contemplating his lot, you are left to wonder if the tale that spins from his mind is in fact real, daydream, memory or nightmare or a cocktail of all these states. odyssey of sexual awakening
We learn that the young man is on an odyssey of sexual awakening, seeking the warm, embracing love of a prostitute, Your Gracie, while undergoing sado-masochistic torture and buggery with a rather unhinged older man, Louis Jack. Louis Jack is a man he sees as "only a dream and not a reality at all" as he sits reading his book by the river. What unfolds could simply be an extension of Louis Jack's own madness where, as Stephen Thrower offers in the notes accompanying the film, Duffer's internal drama evolves out of "a folie a deux syndrome: in which one person's madness can infect a close partner." Your Gracie and Louis Jack could simply be a twin idee fixe representing Duffer's slowly loosening grip on sanity and stability.

Dumaresq's voice over, as Duffer, traces this polar shift between the kindly prostitute and the insanity of Louis Jack's bizarre and often disturbing physical and mental torture. Yet, Duffer seems to rationalise it all as a process that he must go through because he loves both figures for specific and necessary reasons. All the characters inter-relate on the soundtrack as the images play by. It always has the feel of a dream, where dialogue becomes narration as Duffer plods around a familiar London with its laundrettes, lorries carrying Watney's ales and bedsits have Omo washing powder on their shelves.
Duffer submits to asphyxiation, snuff film-making and rough sex
Dumaresq also plays the unhinged Louis Jack and we see that "what Louis Jack liked best was hurting me" as Duffer submits to asphyxiation, snuff film-making and rough sex. The sequences featuring Louis Jack are nightmarish as we hear strange incantations on the soundtrack, rambling non-sequiturs or cries of "womanimal!" as he wrestles Duffer to the floor in his squalid bedsit. It is the darkest of daddy/son relationships summed up by Duffer's explanation, "Louis Jack was one of the best, one of the nicest. Even now I think well of him. It's just that he shouldn't have done what he did. Still, even if you don't understand why he did those things to me, you can try. I hope you try." There is a later reflection on Duffer's deceased mother as he prepares to jump into bed with Your Gracie in which he considers the surrogate mother figure of the prostitute and comes to the conclusion that even though he didn't have sex with his mother he was well aware that "she was no Virgin Mary... and I was no Jesus either."

As Duffer prowls the streets of 1971, and the route between the "flouncy bed" of the mother figure of Your Gracie and Louis Jack's nihilistic and soiled nightmare, we also see the downside of the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s in the graffiti on the walls around him - "dynamite is freedom" is scrawled on a wall as he walks to Your Gracie's basement flat, "mind how you go" adorns a fence as he walks past a couple beating each other up in the road or he sees the same young couple, drunk, stumbling towards him with a huge billboard behind them, advertising Haig scotch, demanding 'Don't be vague.' I suspect you couldn't help but be vague in the midst of the splintering political, moral and sociological ideologies of that decade.
Lynchian in essence
The most disturbing moments in the film involve the demonic Louis Jack spewing worms from his mouth and covering Duffer's semi-naked body with them and when Duffer believes Louis Jack has made him pregnant. We have no idea if this pregnancy is just a manifestation of the darkness of a pre-suicidal young man's mind or whether it actually exists.

There is a very unnerving quality to these aspects of the film that one could correctly call Lynchian in essence and the film does pre-date Eraserhead's equally bizarre dream world by five years. But the world of Despins and Dumaresq here shares the same surrealism, multi-layered soundtrack and twitchy elliptical visions of Lynch's film as well as the psychodrama of Powell's Peeping Tom and Roeg's Performance and heralds the monochrome spontaneity in the later New Queer Cinema of Bruce LaBruce and Tom Kalin.

There's a sequence where all you can see are the hands and arms of Duffer and Louis Jack reaching out from inky blackness to cook up drugs over burnt down candles which visually pre-dates this Lynchian chiaroscuro. "Since Louis Jack wanted me to be a dog, the least I could do was obey his every whim," explains Duffer as Louis Jack drugs the title character in preparation for what he believes is an act of insemination.

Sounds of rushing wind and electronic howls dominate the scene, part of a very experimental sound collage that includes the rantings of Louis Jack and the electronica (momentarily simulating traffic in one scene - four years before Kraftwerk would turn such sounds into a new form of pop) of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's Delia Derbyshire.

There are so many stand out moments in this very strange film as Duffer wanders the corridors of his own mind (the encounter in the deserted street with a young mod, the peaches pregnancy test, a pregnant Duffer knitting bootees, the doubt as to whether they steal a doll or a real baby) and in the end we're never sure if the whole thing is simply the last crazed reflections of a psychotic episode as the film concludes with the image of a prone Duffer on the riverside. Perhaps the voiceovers of Louis Jack and Your Gracie intoning "I am thou and thou art I" are the best clue to this Blakean vision.

Dumaresq voices all the male characters in this narrative and Erna May plays Your Gracie during Duffer's stream of consciousness recall of the events in the film. Coupled with these voice-overs is a wonderfully moving piano led musical accompaniment by Hair composer and lyricist Galt MacDermot, MacDermot would continue to work on musical projects with Dumaresq and Despins and their continuing collaboration really starts to bear fruit on the second half of this double bill, The Moon Over the Alley.  

Duffer is a unique view of London and a fascinating personal study of the moral, gender, social and political obfuscations of the times. Shot on 16mm, this HD transfer really does emphasise the grain in the images, adding to the dream-like vision it presents, and in many scenes the contrast is very good with deep blacks and crisp whites and greys. Despins and Dumaresq share directorial duties and compose and edit with a very dramatic visual sensibility whilst also allowing the camera to roam freely over faces and bodies. A provocative gem.

Special features
- Both films presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition
- Illustrated booklet with newly commissioned essays by Stephen Thrower and Rob Young, and Joseph Despins’ personal recollections of making the two films

Duffer (Flipside 015)
Released 17 January 2011 / Cat no: BFIB1083 / UK / 1971 / Cert 15 / black and white / English language (optional hard-of-hearing subtitles) / 75 mins  / Original aspect ratio 1.33:1

The Moon Over the Alley (1975)

MacDermot's music plays a central role in Despins and Dumaresq's equally interesting film parable from 1975. They take their themes of alienation and disenfranchisement in the city and weave them into a quasi-musical form, taking in pop, folk, reggae, spiritual and torch songs, where a moral tale unfolds in which the London of 1975 is a violent and threatening place if you're an outsider.

The film is 'observed' by a vagrant couple, Sybil and Akki, who act as a Greek chorus to the personal stories that spill out from the boarding house run by Mrs Gusset (a quite brilliant Erna May) and into the said, moonlit alley of the title. As Sybil and Akki sing the title song and settle down for the night Sybil warns that "in a short while you'll see that the moon won't be so bright as it is it. Clouds will cover it" and that "it'll get broken up there. I hope it won't break us." 
...gritty social realism punctuated by musical numbers
Essentially, the film uses music and song, almost akin to The Kinks efforts to write musical theatre in the mid-1970s, to supplement the narratives of young Ronnie (Patrick Murray who would go on to play Mickey Pearce in Only Fools and Horses) and his courtship with Nellie and the feud between the Gusset and Tudge families, the impending slum clearances that would force Mrs Gusset out of her house, the doomed love affair of love lorn drunk Jack (Sean Caffrey) and the fate that befalls the paedophile activities of another of Mrs Gusset's tenants, Mr. Deray.

A young black couple and an American musician join the other tenants at number 19 and the scene is set for a raft of gritty social realism punctuated by musical numbers and a fantasy-tinged observational style. The narrative is presented in a conventional sense, very different from the voiceover form of Duffer, but slowly develops into a tale of innocent citizens coping with the darker forces that society bombards them with. This apocalyptic vision, where the moon augurs disaster, is summed up in the encounter between the Indian immigrant looking for lodgings at Mrs. Gusset's where he offers "we shall all be dead tomorrow. I am far away from home."

The testing of innocence is seen throughout the film - a hippy group busking on a street corner are arrested for drug-taking; the black couple are inadvertently drawn into and arrested during a demonstration about a supermarket replacing the street market; the Romeo and Juliet figures of Ronnie and Nellie are brutally punished for their clandestine affair and Jack discovers a truth about June, the woman he intends to marry, that is both hilarious and desperately sad (and Mrs Gusset can throw a mean punch!). As Stephen Thrower observes in his notes that accompany the release, the film embraces British sit-com, music hall, packs in domestic details and manages to avoid the terrible cliches that could so easily have destabilised the characters and events.

As it weaves its magic, there are many relevant themes explored with a focus on community and togetherness that is fully emphasised in the violent tragedy that befalls Ronnie and Nellie and the retribution given out to Mr. Deray after he has attempted to seduce a 10-year-old girl with a bag of sweets. The violence is bloody and harsh, very realistic in the midst of the picaresque episodes and the musical moments that dot the story. The Gussets do succumb to the slum clearance and rather pointedly the film signals the dissolution of the community not just through the street gang violence (very relevant in the mid-1970s) but also through the displacement of groups into anonymous tower blocks.
"a little weird, under the stars over Meard Street"
You could often go as far as to say that it uses a form of magical realism where mystical, eschatological elements (Sybil and Akki, the strange music acts in the local pub, and the songs for example) are blended into the grittier domestic atmosphere to provoke a better understanding of the struggle in the Notting Hill and Portobello communities. When Ronnie and Nellie go to the pictures, the theatre is filled with a soulful pop song as the camera observes some of the peculiar members of the audience, more outsiders searching vainly for a meaning to life.

They go and see Kevin Brownlow's speculative docu-drama It Happened Here - hardly a film that you would expect a young couple to go and see - and its depiction of a post-war Britain ruled by the Nazis chimes both with the German landlady Bertha Gusset's uneasy relationship with neighbour Ethel Tudge, who clearly resents Bertha's origins, and Bertha's own melodramatic and tongue-in-cheek rendering of Wagner.

Equally bizarre is Jack's drunken odyssey through the late night streets of Notting Hill, having just discovered that his long-term girlfriend, June, has taken to stripping in Soho to try and prop up their faltering relationship. As he wanders along, he is entranced by the activities of 'The Macabre Cafe' where a singer looking like a mix of Alice Cooper and Roy Wood intones a song about being lost and feeling, "a little weird, under the stars over Meard Street."

Again, a very singular film, beautifully shot in black and white by Peter Hannan and featuring some lovely, naturalistic performances. Galt MacDermot's music and songs add significantly to the mood of the film, communicating some of the lost dreams of a community under pressure and rapidly being broken up. The picture quality is full of deep contrast, the inherent grain adding to the elements of realism in the film and, while there are occasional blemishes and speckles, the HD transfer holds up very well indeed. A tremendously affecting film where indeed "the moon over the alley throws a long, long shadow."

Special features
- Both films presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition
- Illustrated booklet with newly commissioned essays by Stephen Thrower and Rob Young, and Joseph Despins’ personal recollections of making the two films
The Moon Over the Alley (Flipside 015)
Released 17 January 2011 / Cat no: BFIB1083 / UK / 1975 / Cert 15 / black and white / English language (optional hard-of-hearing subtitles) / 108 mins / Original aspect ratio 1.33:1

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2 Responses to “BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - Duffer & The Moon Over the Alley / BFI Flipside BD Review”
  1. I watched the first one this afternoon and have the second one on at the moment. Finding them a bit tough going but they'll probably both grow on me with repeat viewings. Blu-ray not destined for eBay just yet! The music's pretty catchy!

  2. Hi, Matt

    I think all three films are excellent.

    Absolutely adore the 'Duffer' and 'Moon Over the Alley' combo.

    Not for everyone I admit and on first viewing they mighty seem utterly strange. Both films way ahead of their time in my opinion and there are further rewards on repeat viewings. Don't send the Blu-ray to eBay! Keep it!

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