by Harlan Kennedy


The Edinburgh Film Festival was 40 years old in August, and nostalgia was coming out of the woodwork. Tributes were penned, tuckets were sounded, haggis was downed. There was dancing in the streets, bagpiping in the projection rooms and a celebration docu­mentary called Hooray for Holyrood (rhyme with Hollywood), being Edin­burgh's oldest precinct and containing Holyrood Palace, where Mary Stuart loved and lived. And for its main movie retrospective, Edinburgh dug deep into the past to retrieve The Ghost Camera (1933) by David Lean's favorite Thirties filmmaker, and the man who gave him his first editing job, Bernard Vorhaus.

Lean dropped the name casually – as one often drops bombshells – in a British TV interview, but suddenly every critic in England was scurrying to his reference books and every archivist to his vaults: Vorhaus, B., born 1905 in New Jersey....made low-budget action pics and thrillers in Britain and America....was named in the HUAC hearings as a communist sympa­ ended in 1952 when pro­jectionists union threatened to blackball all United Artists films if Vorhaus' work was shown...silent ever since.

Someone had the simple idea of look­ing up V for Vorhaus in the British phonebook – and there it was. Bernard was alive and well, lived in St. John's Wood, North London, and had been enjoying a pros­perous second career as a house con­verter. Soon he was up in Edinburgh, aged 81, a spry codger unfazed by sudden fame. He enjoyed re-seeing many of his movies and walked out of the ones he didn't enjoy. He also dropped startling hints that he might set up another project.

Vorhaus fanciers, like festival director Jim Hickey, insist that his movies are not masterpieces, and even Lean would prob­ably agree. But they are outstandingly well-made B-pics and quota quickies. A Sam Fuller before his time, Vorhaus made a tiny budget and a tinier schedule go a long way, not least in his best movie The Last Journey (1935). This is as good a train romp as The Lady Vanishes. The all-sorts characters – a newlywed bigamist (Hugh Williams) and his unsuspecting bride, a doctor-hypnotist bound for a vital operation (Godfrey Tearle), a temperance worker, a detective disguised as a drunk, etc. – climb onboard an express which happens to be in the hands of a driver who wants to murder his co-driver. The driver is also on his last journey before retire­ment, and what the hell does he care if the locomotive, stoked with his fury, picks up speed and is soon slamming through the English countryside threatening cows, milk trains, and startled passengers wait­ing vainly on station platforms for a train that doesn't stop?

Briskly funny and exciting, masterfully dovetailing the plots and subplots as apoc­alypse approaches, Vorhaus' film could have taught the Seventies' disaster genre a thing or two. The director does less well with the love-and-avalanche plot of Dusty Ermine (1936), and Crime on the Hill (1933) is a potty whodunnit crossing Aga­tha Christie with P. G. Wodehouse. Bodies thud and wills are read in a never-never English village. But even here Vorhaus shows a cracking sense of humor, managing to parody a dated genre almost before it was dated – watch the montage of gaping faces whenever Something Dra­matic happens.

Three movies from Poland grabbed the political limelight at Edinburgh. Krysztof Kieslowski's No End is banned in the Eastern Bloc. The authorities won't bear a film whose dead lawyer hero (played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz, Wajda's Man of Marble) looks on approvingly from beyond the grave as his plucky widow (Grazyna Szapolowska) carries on his battles against the state. Plain but piquant – the "ghost" motif is surreally matter-of-fact, not fey or winsome – the movie's plot is enriched by its range of characters, embracing every flavor of political response. The widow fights the good fight on behalf of persecuted Soli­darity workers or political dissidents, despite learning more than she wants to know about her husband's sexual past. And her two lawyers, her husband's ex­colleagues, are a grimly comical Tweedledum and Tweedledee. One is an old compromiser who'd rather buy a deal with the judge than champion a losing cause or client. The other is a glitter-eyed young ideologue who'd rather see a client die on a hunger strike than recant a protest or plead not guilty.

Kieslowski's first film, the black-and-white Camera Buff, shimmied deftly through the ambiguities of life under total­itarianism. But No Еnd adds color, literally and figuratively. The guiding hand reach­ing out to the heroine from the next world – the husband steps in to influence events at times – is presented as a beatific alter­native to the steering hand of the State, reaching deep into people's homes and souls.

Neither Roman Wionczek's Dignity nor Kazimierz Karabasz' A Looming Shadow measures up to Kieslowski. But yoked together as a mandatory double bill they make intriguing viewing. (Poland won't allow the second to be shown with­out the first as an ideological counterweight). Dignity is an anti-Solidarity tract masquerading as a film. Its lone and aging hero (Jerzy Braszka), a factory worker who won't be bullied into going on strike, is the shining knight of the state-approved union up against the Solidarity renegades. At the end the hero is wheelbarrowed out of the factory by his bullying workmates and dumped outside the gates. The bruised fighter for status-quo socialism, who only wants to support his family and his right to work, glowers back at the massed ranks of nasty radicalism. The audience feels it ought to be booing or hissing as if at a pantomime.

A Looming Shadow whacks this rub­bish so firmly over the head that the dou­ble-bill idea, from the Party's viewpoint, seems self-defeating. A 60-year-old retired electrician, splendidly played by the pachyderm-like Marius Dmochowski (Poland's Jean Gabin), comes to Cracow for a banquet honoring the 30th anniver­sary of the building of the Nova Huta steelworks, in which he took part. Medals are dished out all around, but he doesn't get one. Why? Whodunnit? Is there a for­gotten (by him) but unforgiven blot in his past? Prowling through dark corridors of power, the film depicts Eastern European bureaucracy as a maze of conspiracy and obfuscation. Even with a sword for defi­ance and a ball of thread for finding your way back to daylight and honesty, you won't go through this labyrinth without meeting the Minotaur at least once, maybe fatally.

British cinema, too, is doing its bit in the age of paranoia. Absolutely everyone feels he's being got at in Mike Newell's The Good Father, a tale of sun­dered parents and tug-of-war kids. Chris­topher Hampton adapts the novel by Peter Prince, and Anthony Hopkons grabs the plum role of a 50-ish South Londoner who's split up with his wife, resents her monopoly of their young son, and seeks vicarious revenge. He steers a similarly plighted friend (Jim Broadbent) through the law courts, to sue for custody of his (Broadbent's) son.

Moral squalor reigns – the lawyer they hire is an oily upper-class thug (Simon Callow) who smears Broadbent's wife by citing her student-demo past and her les­bian present – and Hopkins devours every morsel of cynical dialogue. But excitable critics who claimed Newell to be a master of sleaze on the strength of Dance with a Stranger should take a look at this picture and think again. It is grungy without style. Shot for Channel 4 televi­sion, it looks every inch a TV movie, all 20 inches grainily expanded to 2000. Hopkons, though, is a treat.

I have been subject to several assassina­tion attempts in the UK since writing the article "The Brits Have Gone Nuts" (Film Comment, August 1985). But I still think British cinema is suffering an epidemic of self-mortification. Sometimes this can be fun, as with Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy, which shows the Punk Era throwing up all over the sceptered isle – ghastly but funny. But there are also hard-labor mov­ies like Michael Caton-Jones' lugubrious Riveter, a National Film School featurette about a father and son who leave Glasgow to start a new life in the Scottish isles, meeting woe, misery, and rain in much the same measure as before. Or like Ann and Eduardo Guedes' pseudo-picaresque Rocinante, in which John Hurt traipses across Britain and is astonished to learn that the place is sick, stricken, and full of class schisms.

Once again, Edinburgh rounded up choice items from the East. They also threw in mini-tributes to two direc­tors, one dead, one very much alive.

The deceased director is Filipino Gerardo De Leon, whose rip-roaring adventures in diverse genres – musicals, comedies, gangster films – survive in dodgy prints, some of which sear the ret­ina. The black-and-white compositions of 48 Hours (1950), a prison-break drama, invite comparison with Raoul Walsh and Fritz Lang. Unfortunately, I had to leave after 70 minutes due to incipient blind­ness. But I enjoyed what I saw and heard.

The alive filmmaker is writer-director-producer-star Jackie Chan, heir to Bruce Lee as Hong Kong cinema's reigning hyphenate. Chan has more humor than Lee (who wasn't slow with a gag himself), and his 1983 comedy-action romp Project A outdoes Lee in most other depart­ments, too. Visual gags vie with thumping fight scenes and heart-stopping action stunts – all the latter performed by Chan himself, including shinnying up a swaying 50-foot flagpole to release his manacles. Nothing like the rapturous groan of collec­tive vertigo that went through the audi­ence at this point had ever been heard in Edinburgh before.

Up the hill, in the auld town near the castle, sits one of the world's few surviving camerae obscurae. From a periscope mounted on a roof, a 360-degree image of the city in motion – traffic, buildings, people, scudding clouds – is reflected onto the "screen" of a circular white table. Hickey has made much of Edinburgh, which is unique among film fests – part of a larger festival of art, music, ballet, opera, and theater. Jerzy Radziwilowicz can take time off from scorching audiences in Andrej Wadja's stage version of Crime and Punishment to drop round to filmhouse as the star of Krzysztof Kieslowski's No End. Cross-media electricity crackles. Four decades in the business have not dented Edinburgh's variety and vitality.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.