By George Bass (Contributor New York Times | The Guardian | New Scientist)
Forget your Fox orchestral searchlights, Paramount stars or Tri-Star flying horses coming into land: when a topless Bombardier Billy Wells swung his mallet at a nine foot gong, you knew you were in for gripping cinema. The Rank Organisation was founded in 1937 with the goal of producing, owning and distributing commercial films: something founder J. Arthur Rank and his heirs managed in differing forms for over five decades. From their signature Look at Life films documenting ‘60s Britain to their final productions – which include 1985’s Defence of the Realm, featuring Gabriel Byrne and recently restored on Blu-Ray – the banging of the Rank gong meant it was time to settle back with your popcorn. Here are some of their finest adventures.
Ballad in Blue (1964)
Directed by Casablanca star Paul Henreid and starring R&B icon Ray Charles, Ballad in Blue is more than just a curiosity picture. Its story about blindness and how it affects the sighted sees Charles’ musician beg a young Piers Bishop to undergo a life-altering operation, while also coaxing the boy’s widowed mother and her companion off the bottle. Charles’ real-life struggles with addiction fuel his performance, which sees him belt out some of his biggest hits: Busted, Hit the Road, Jack, I Got a Woman. The film’s mix of sooty London backstreets and Charles’ songwriting make Ballad in Blue equal parts kitchen sink drama and kitchen disco.
One of the first British films to cast East Asians in leading roles, Invasion tells the story of a traffic accident victim (Tsai Chin) brought into Edward Judd’s rural hospital. He’s wearing a strange rubber suit, has unidentifiable blood and a disc embedded in his brain. He can also learn English just by touching a native speaker. When he reveals himself to be an alien who was transporting two extra-terrestrial prisoners, the race is on to deduce who’s the real alien good guy, and how to stop the hospital succumbing to a high-tech heat shield. Writer Roger Marshall would later re-use elements of his story for the classic Doctor Who serial Spearhead from Space.
Maroc 7 (1967)
Cyd Charisse is living the high life as the editor of a Swinging Sixties fashion magazine. There’s one catch: her job’s a front for her real career as an international jewel thief. When she travels to Morocco with a group of eye-catching models to switch a priceless medallion for a facsimile, top cop Gene Barry and local police chief Denholm Elliot join forces to catch her. With its opening scene of a shadowy cat burglar and its backdrop of high-flying espionage, Maroc 7 could be a Man from U.N.C.L.E. story made even bolder for the big screen. Look out for a bravura piece of stunt casting: Leslie Phillips playing a henchman!
Deadlier than the Male (1967)
Before there was Bond, there was Bulldog Drummond: a World War One veteran and “gentleman adventurer” who featured in spy stories written by ex-sapper H. C. McNeile. First brought to the screen in 1922, he’s here played by Richard Johnson, who was Dr No director Terence Young’s first choice for 007. When an innocent oil mogul is killed by a backfiring cigar and a holidaying Brit is harpooned by bikini-clad assassins, Bulldog is dispatched to investigate. Earning an X certificate on its release for its scenes of hellraising females and “promiscuous behaviour”, Deadlier than the Male should today be considered essential viewing for every Austin Powers fan.
During Rank’s later years, head of production Tony Williams would state that “You have to go back in time to tell a story that doesn’t have to face seventies problems”. You’d think 1971’s Assault was doing just that based on its opening credits: its producer and composer were both veterans of the cosier Carry On films. But it’s soon obvious that Peter Hayers’ thriller is striving for the contemporary, telling the story of a serial rapist targeting schoolgirls. Cinematographer Ken Hodges puts us in the attacker’s head with his eerie POV shots, and the way the male coppers manhandle everyone in their path mean it’s up to witness Suzy Kendall to do the thinking for them.
When publicans Joan Collins and James Booth learn that the primary suspect in their daughter’s murder – a very sweaty-looking Kenneth Griffith – has been released due to lack of evidence, they decide to do what the police couldn’t, and jail him themselves. Beating him to a pulp and holding him captive next to the beer barrels in their cellar, the couple and their accomplice are forced to choose between finishing him off, or turning him over to the authorities – and facing arrest for kidnap.
Hands of the Ripper (1971)
Rank distributed Hammer Films’ retelling of the Jack the Ripper legend, and it’s as thrilling as you’d expect from the studio that also adapted Dracula, Frankenstein and other historical monsters. The Ripper’s young daughter watches her father kill through the bars of her playpen; as an adult, she believes she’s inherited his bloodlust, and takes to the streets whenever her memories of him are stirred. More sympathetic towards its female protagonist than you might think, the violence is nonetheless brutal, particularly in the scene where Anna (Angharad Rees) approaches a victim with a handful of pins …
Tarka the Otter (1978)
Anyone who thinks otters have an easy time in wildlife parks should watch this adaption of Henry Williamson’s novel, written in a time when the playful mammals were still being hunted. Peter Ustinov provides the narration as our intrepid young pup fends off owl attacks, ferocious storms and newly-released eels, all while enjoying a few frolics in between. Perhaps Tarka’s struggle to stay alive, combined with the gut-punch of Ring of Bright Water (1968), was responsible for otter hunting finally being outlawed in 1981.