By Simon Ward (a writer whose books include The Wit and Wisdom of James Bond, Snowpiercer: The Art and Making of the Film, Aliens: The Set Photography, Okja: The Art and Making of the Film and Making Moon: A British Sci-Fi Cult Classic. He also wrote the introduction to Modesty Blaise: The Grim Joker and has provided text and other materials for numerous Blu-rays.)
THERE IS A CORNER OF CINEMA THAT WILL FOREVER BE ENGLAND
Following the summer 2022 Platinum Jubilee celebrations and in honour of Her Majesty, here are just 7(0) of the best British films… plus three more for a neatly round number.
Death at Broadcasting House 
A murder mystery set in the early days of radio programming. A proper behind-the-scenes look that revels in how unglamorous backstage work is – plain, functional rooms filled with irritable, impatient actors and crew. Taking place almost entirely inside BBC’s then-new headquarters, it is essentially an extension of a locked room mystery and its wonderfully specific setting draws an unexpected line to 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio and the long-running TV series Inside No. 9 (2014-).
The House Across the Lake 
An odd marriage of an American film noir with a British setting, look and scale. It is Hammer Studios doing Double Indemnity ten years too late. The lead character relates and narrates via flashback the story of a down-on-his-luck author who gets embroiled in the tumultuous and poisonous rich family on the bank of Lake Windermere. It is the actors who bring this Patricia Highsmith-style tale to life, and, while Hillary Brooke’s femme fatale is wonderfully blatant in her selfishness, the highlight for many modern viewers will be seeing Sid James in the role of the cuckolded husband.
Happy is the Bride 
A light-as-a-feather comedy from the Boulting Brothers. It’s all cricket, polite misunderstandings, vicars, pennywhistle sound effects and stalwarts such as Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Joyce Grenfell and John Le Mesurier playing variations on characters they knew like the back of their hands. Carmichael’s David gets engaged to Janette Scott’s Janet and all manner of mishaps, not least her disapproving parents, hinder their progress up the aisle. It is a familiar story but breezily made and effortless to watch and yet worth watching if only to see Le Mesurier dictating the following letter with complete formality and conviction: “Further to your letter of the 14th and your enquiry regarding delivery of four tons of bananas in a bruised condition…”
The Man Who Finally Died 
A remake of the 1959 TV series of the same name, the feature film of The Man Who Finally Died has become more famous than its predecessor – and rightly so, due in no small part to Peter Cushing and Stanley Baker, who was still a box office draw at the time. Quentin Lawrence directs this mystery thriller (Baker in sunglasses prowling around Bavaria) with the same focus and unfussiness that characterized his earlier Cash on Demand (1962), and as a result, the film has a prestige quality elevating it above a B movie. It is worth watching for Philip Green’s wonderful, harpsichord-heavy score alone.
This is My Street 
A great time capsule look at working class London life from – of all people – Carry On producer Peter Rogers. June Ritchie portrays the hardworking, frustrated housewife Margery who finds her attention wandering from her hovel to the roguish lodger next door, played by Ian Hendry. There is a surprising, frank sexuality, real attention given to Margery’s wants and Hendry brings an easy realism with his gruff swagger. Keep an eye out for a very young John Hurt in only his third film role.
The Mind Benders 
A high-concept psychological thriller exploring brainwashing. Dirk Bogarde is wonderful as the paranoid doctor attempting to solve the death of his colleague and delving into experiments in sensory deprivation via isolation tank, pre-figuring Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980). Bogarde reunited with his Victim (1961) director Basil Dearden for this sci-fi drama, and while it may not be as groundbreaking as that earlier triumph, it is a strange, creepy, unsettling entry in British Cold War cinema.
Nothing But the Best 
Generally neglected in recent decades, this atonal movie features an absolute roll call of talent: Alan Bates, Denholm Elliot, photography by Nicolas Roeg, directed by Clive Donner (one year after the Pinter adaptation The Caretaker) and with a script by Darling (1965) and Rogue Male’s (1976) Frederic Raphael. It is a Swinging Sixties satire in which Alan Bates’ Jimmy Brewster callously and murderously attempts to climb the social ladder. The comedy doesn’t always land and the darker aspects sit awkwardly, but Brewster’s casual, self-justifying narration pre-dates Alfie by two years.
A determinedly gritty and street-level film of the real-life Great Train Robbery, featuring actors who look like actual crooks, which is meant as a compliment. Director Peter Yates knew his way round a realistic crime thriller and Robbery is absolutely of apiece with his later Bullitt (1968) and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973). The thugs of Eddie Coyle and the car chase of Bullitt are both present here in proto forms, all captured on location (much of it in natural light) by the great cinematographer Douglas Slocombe.
Baby Love 
It is hard to imagine a film like this being made and released today. Teenage Luci (played by 15-year-old Linda Hayden) is taken in by the wealthy Quayle household following her mother’s suicide. Once entrenched in her new digs, the sexually confident Luci manipulates her adopted family, seducing those around her and embarking on a twisted form of revenge against society and those who either undermine her or objectify her. Baby Love is provocative and uncomfortably candid, but chooses tension over exploitation.
A bleak, cold thriller, shot with grim realism by the legendary DP Sven Nykvist. Scottish-accented Sean Connery is a fictitious Scandinavian country’s head of security, trying to entangle two terrorist plots. Ransom was released right in the midst of Connery’s most experimental period, sandwiched in between films including The Offence (1973), Zardoz (1974), The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Robin and Marian (1976). He is downbeat in a thriller that tapped into contemporary fears of terror attacks anywhere and any when.