Friday, 24 May 2013

Bitter Harvest

I'd urge any Patrick Hamilton fans reading not to get too excited: this standard road-to-ruin tale set in pre-swinging 60s London bears only the most rudimentary resemblance to his sublime trilogy about the city's lowlife between the wars.  Bitter Harvest owes far less to Hamilton than to its screenwriter, Ted Willis.  A ubiquitous figure in British film and TV of the 50s and early 60s, Willis created Dixon of Dock Green and specialised in scripting hand-wringing films about the social problems of the day.  Produced in glorious colour by Julian Wintle and Leslie Parkyn's Independent Artists (responsible the same year for Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life, with some of the same cast), Bitter Harvest is probably the glossiest of Willis's problem pictures.

The film opens with an orgy of destruction, as a very drunk young woman (Janet Munro) returns home to her flat and sets about systematically smashing it up, and chucking a wardrobeful of expensive togs out of the window, before tearfully collapsing in front of her own reflection in the bathroom mirror.

Through the magic of the flashback we return to Jenny Jones' (for that's her name) past life working in her dad's shop in a dead Welsh mining village, before a series of events set her life on a very different path.  The first of these is the appearance in the shop of a businessman from London (Terence Alexander).  To us he's clearly an old sleazeball, but to Jenny's untrained eyes he's an impossibly suave symbol of the glamour of the big city.

The next significant event occurs that evening as Jenny babysits for a well-to-do local couple.  In quintessentially early 60s fashion, Jenny's entranced by the television set her family can't afford, particularly commercial TV's promises of the good life through luxury products.  Hypnotised by a soap advert, Jenny immediately dashes upstairs to have a bath, where she's disturbed by the return of the man of the house (William Lucas).  This is where Jenny learns what men are willing to do for her, as she's offered a fiver to buy herself a sexy negligĂ©e (though, still an innocent at this point, she decides she'd rather have a new spring coat).

The next day Jenny visits her lonely old aunts in Cardiff (rent-a-crones May Hallatt and Mary Merrall),and learns to her horror that her dad intends for her to go and live with them.

Unable to bear the thought of ending up like these two, Jenny flees, and bumps into Andy, her businessman of the day before. He takes her for a drink,and in an attempt at appearing sophisticated she asks for Champagne.  What she gets is a 10 shilling bottle of fizzy plonk, but it's all the same to her.  After being plied with enough of this, she's easily encouraged on to the dancefloor.  There may be some subtle sexual imagery going on here, I'm just not sure.

Next morning, Jenny awakes to discover that not only has she lost her virginity, but she's stranded in London.  Andy fails to show up for a rendezvous at the King and Queen pub (the Midnight Bell of Hamilton's book), but Jenny finds a new admirer in kind-hearted barman Bob (John Stride), who she repays for being kind to her by telling him she can't return home as she's pregnant.

Bob brings Jenny back to his lodgings to stay - much to the disgust of landlady Thora Hird, until she realises he's willing to pay double.  They start off with Bob sleeping on the floor, but it's not long before they're sharing the bed - an unexpected glimpse of Janet Munro's nipple slipped in to fully justify the film's X certificate.

Believe it or not, this is the shot which the beginning of Bob and Jenny's lovemaking fades into:

If that wasn't ridiculous enough, Bob and Jenny's temporary happiness is conveyed to us with a montage of them larking about around London landmarks (perhaps not as much of a cliché in 1963 as it would soon become).

But after a while the life of a barman's kept woman isn't enough for the increasingly cynical Jenny.  She wants the glamorous lifestyle she sees others living for herself, and, in Willis's main theme here, she's thoroughly corrupted by the media. She's determined to be a model, just like those she sees in the magazines: "Look at her! Is she any better than me? Is her bust any better than mine?"

One of Bob and Jenny's neighbours is a seedy TV bit-part actor (Colin Gordon), and Jenny wangles her way in to a showbiz party with him, convinced it'll be the making of her career.  Which indeed it is, though perhaps not how she originally intended.

At the party Jenny encounters sinister impresario Mr Denny (Alan Badel), who quickly takes an interest in her, though not necessarily in her modelling talents.

Even when Jenny returns home drunk and makes it quite clear her interest in him's destined to be short-lived, Bob's too much of a simple-minded pillock to realise what's going on...

...until, that is, Jenny spells it out to him at a party at Denny's place ("I've got something they want, and they can have it!"), casually dropping in the information that she's not really pregnant after all.  He doesn't take the information well.

Denny and his lackeys break up the contretemps and send Bob on his way.  Then Denny calmly takes possession of Jenny, informing her he'll set up with some new clothes, a place to live, a car...

The flashback finishes, and we learn that while it was going on Jenny died of an overdose of sleeping pills.  Surveying her smashed-up flat, strewn with presents given to her by various men whose photos litter the floor, Inspector Nigel Davenport can do little more than tut.

It's a weirdly abrupt ending to the film, leaving us with the feeling that Jenny's story's only been half told, and an unpleasant sense that once someone's life's drifted into the direction hers did the rest goes without saying.

Bitter Harvest could be an almost laughably heavy-handed treatment of the slightest and most antiquated of plots if it wasn't for the conviction in Janet Munro and John Stride's performance, and the fact that the film was made in the year of the Profumo scandal lends it a fascinating resonance.  As an adaptation of Hamilton it barely registers at all, with the relationship between barmaid Ella (Anne Cunningham, Elsie Tanner's daughter in Coronation Street) and her persistent admirer Mr Eccles (Allan Cuthbertson), one of the main strands of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky only featuring as the most minuscule of subplots.

Ella's main role in the film is as a sympathetic listener in unrequited love with Bob. The film concludes with a cut from the flat where Jenny ended it all to Bob and Ella,who now appear blissfully happy with one another.  Presumably it's meant to be a happy ending but actually it just seems more than a little callous.

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