Judge Paul Corupe takes on a quinque of gritty British crime films.
Our reviews of Elephant (published August 2nd, 2004), The Firm (Blu-ray) (published May 26th, 2011), Made In Britain (published June 5th, 2006), and Scum (published February 28th, 2006) are also available.
"I'm the daddy now!"—Carlin (Ray Winstone)
Iconoclastic British director Alan Clarke made only a handful of films until his untimely death in 1990, but he will always be remembered for Scum, an unforgettably harsh condemnation of the state of juvenile prisons. After its BBC premiere was halted over concerns of the realistically sadistic content, Clarke remade the film for theatres, and the movie gained a legendary status among British teens as a no-holds-barred story of sex and violence, earned in part no doubt, by parents who forbade younger children to view it. Scum, presented here in both its versions, is the crown jewel of Blue Underground's new five-disc The Alan Clarke Collection. Although this box set doesn't cover Clarke's entire output, it does give North American audiences a peek at the director's most uncompromising films—Made in Britain, The Firm, and Elephant—which all tackle violence, criminality, and racism in 1980s Britain from different, but equally fascinating angles.
Facts of the Case
Each version of Scum takes us into the cruel world of borstals (British juvenile prisons) where the guards and wardens are often more dangerous than the inmates. Carlin (Ray Winstone, Quadrophenia) and two other inmates are transferred to a new borstal where they are abused, attacked, and belittled by the guards and their fellow prisoners. Experienced with these kinds of facilities before, Carlin uses a few quick strikes of violence to rise to the rank of "daddy," a leader among the others who controls the trade of money and cigarettes flowing in and out of the institution. The others are not so lucky, and find themselves drowning in their tyrannical surroundings.
Clarke's 1982 telefilm Made in Britain plays like something of a prequel to Scum, as there's no doubt that the young neo-Nazi skinhead Trevor (Tim Roth, Reservoir Dogs, in his acting debut) has a borstal stay in his future. Broadcast by the BBC as part of a series called Tales Out of School, Made in Britain is a reaction to Margaret Thatcher's conservative reign in the early 1980s that tried to ignore the violence and racism of the insurgent youth culture. Smashing an East Indian family's windows lands Trevor in a halfway house, but the teenage thug is determined to play by his own rules and he continues to break windows, steal cars, huff glue and in one scene, even defecates on his police files. Trevor's unwavering belief that he must constantly challenge and work to destroy a cruel society he did not make is contested by the social workers at every turn, but it seems the only one that can crack his fanatic anti-social assault is the boy's overworked parole officer.
Gangs of rioting soccer fans are the main subject of Clarke's The Firm. Real estate agent by day and the leader of a group of football hooligans by night, Bex Bissell (Gary Oldman, The Professional) wants to team his boys with two rival gangs in anticipation of a huge multi-country brawl at the 1988 European Championships. But when he nominates himself as the leader of a national organization, Bex's counterparts, Yeti (Philip Davis, Alien3) and Oboe (Andrew Wilde, Nineteen Eighty-Four) refuse to comply, believing that only one firm should be allowed to represent England in Munich. Each group attempts to prove their mettle for the job in increasingly violent attacks, as Bex's wife Sue (Lesley Manville, Topsy Turvy) begs with him to give up the life of violence that has begun to affect his young family.
The final film in the set, Elephant eschews narrative techniques to present a forty-minute killing spree in Northern Ireland. A condemnation of the separatist violence that erupted in the 1980s, the film presents the viewer with 18 separate killings, all performed with different actors who walk pointedly down corridors, through buildings, and on city streets to find their target, coldheartedly squeeze the trigger, and walk away.
Of all the excellent films presented in this amazing release, Scum is an absolute must-see film, a fiery indictment of Britain's borstals that is both completely of its time, and universal in its message. Signaled by Ray Winstone's haunting threat of "I'm the daddy now—next time I'll fuckin' kill ya!" Scum takes a scalpel to the system to show how the guards and prison directors turn a blind eye to prisoner on prisoner violence to uphold the natural hierarchies that emerge in lockdown. The authorities are more interested in keeping everyone in line rather than rehabilitating them, and Clarke's masterwork is an unforgettable portrait of a social system that isn't only broken, it's been shattered into pieces and ground under the heels of misinformed bureaucrats and corrupt guards.
With several different prisoners to focus on, the film gets surprisingly in depth in its dissection of the problems in these prisons. Both versions find Clarke going to every corner of the institution to tell many different stories. Not only is racism dealt with, but so are illiteracy, the inadequacy of the system towards pre-teen offenders, sexual violence, religious oppression, suicide, and toward the end, the film even goes so far as to suggest that the inmates and guards are both locked into a cycle of violence and faulty correction that they are both essentially prisoners of.
Although each film was shot essentially from the same script, there are a few differences between the two versions of Scum presented in this set. Terry Richards takes over for David Threlfall in the role of a non-conformist prisoner named Archer, and one scene of violence toward the end of the film becomes far more graphic. Despite the increase in freedom that Clarke seems to have enjoyed in his second attempt, I enjoy the BBC of version of Scum slightly better, as the later version changes the setting from a dark and dingy borstal to a more modern, impersonal institution slightly less fitting to the squalor and degradation on screen.
Made in Britain is entirely The Tim Roth Show, but I'll be damned if it doesn't make for an amazing 75 minutes. Any American film would be hard-pressed to match the die-hard punk ethos that the film delves into, and that's wholly attributable to Roth, who is unbelievably excellent as the angry skinhead Trevor. Made today, Roth's foul-mouthed and offensively racist performance would have a difficult time even getting on cable.
Part of what Clarke does so well as a filmmaker is to take distinctly unlikable characters and to make them charismatic and sympathetic. You can't help but want this completely unsociable, racist thief to turn his life around, and when Trevor goes entirely out of his way to screw his own future over time and time again, all you can do is cringe. Trevor knows he has had a hand in his present situation, but conversations with the halfway house director hint at a thread of underlying truth in the way Trevor challenges the ideas behind Thatcher's social policies.
A dire warning about juvenile violence, Made in England is at least equally compelling as Scum, featuring indelible images of Tim Roth running through the streets and tunnels screaming "bollocks" and "wankers" at cars and passersby. The film also features opening and closing blasts of punk rock from The Exploited—one of the few Clarke films to offer any sort of music—that heightens the nihilism even further.
Playing a slightly more subdued and complex character, Gary Oldman is not quite as riveting in The Firm, but he still puts in one of his finest performances ever as the vicious Bex. In this film, Clarke turns his eye away from young offenders and looks at a family man who obviously never outgrew his violent fantasies.
Although the problem of soccer hooliganism is foreign to most North American audiences, Clarke does a fine job in pulling viewers into the film to show the self-destructive mindset of the three top British firms, who progress from spray painting and petty vandalism to car bombs, straight razors and guns over the course of the story; a progression that mirrors the real-life firms that had recently turned from weekend warrior boy's clubs into organizations that resembled Mafia crime families. The Firm is ultimately disturbing in the way it delves into the mindset of the violent fringe groups, and is best illustrated by a scene in which Bex, alone in his childhood room adorned with thousands of soccer magazine clippings, repeatedly smashes his pillow with an iron rod while chanting the names of his rivals.
A huge soccer fan himself, Clarke is very specific in keeping the hooliganism and soccer separate, suggesting that one has very little to do with the other. The end of the film even has several members of Dex's gang explaining for the cameras that they don't care what sport they are associated with, they're far more interested in bashing heads for Britain both at home and in tournaments around the world no matter the occasion—a frightening prospect indeed.
Gus Van Sant was obviously inspired by more than just the name of Elephant, easily the most difficult entry in this set. The film's 18 bloody IRA killings, one after another with only a few brief lines of dialogue, make for an effective way to draw attention to the killing and carnage without politicizing things. In every given situation, we're not even let on to which side is pulling the trigger—it's just an outright condemnation of the brutality and inhumanity happening in Northern Ireland.
Elephant should be far more interesting concept than a finished film, but Clarke begins to have a bit of perverse fun with suspense by creating variations on his main theme, obscuring just who are the victims and the killers in a given situation. Making an audience "guess" at the ultimate conclusion of each confrontation is a move that could have trivialized the impact of the film, but it works to maintain attention, and does nothing to dispel the dread that permeates each scene. Make no mistake—if you're hoping to revel in a gory parade of killing as though Elephant was some kind of political slasher film, this is not for you, as the violence is primarily designed to make the viewers look away in disgust. Although I applaud Blue Underground for including it in the set, Elephant is far too downbeat and disturbing to lend itself to repeat viewings, especially since the twists, designed to keep the viewers interest throughout, are no longer surprising the second time around.
One of the reasons that the BBC banned Scum was because they felt that some viewers might think confuse the film's stark cinematographic approach with documentary filmmaking. If there's one noticeable thread running through this entire set, besides the obvious connections of violence and criminality, it's the development of Clarke's unique style. Both versions of Scum get much of their power from the unflinching and steady portrayal of the horrors behind locked doors, but with Made in Britain you can see Clarke beginning to experiment with sweeping Steadicam photography that comes to full fruition with Elephant, which gets a bolt of energy from kinetic shots that coldly slide around the stalking hit men.
As telefilms from the 1980s, each film in this set is presented full frame with a mono soundtrack, with the theatrical version of Scum as the sole exception—it gets a spiffy anamorphic 1.66:1 treatment, and an upgraded 5.1 sound mix. Overall, the films look as good as they should, with a slight level of grain and muted color tones that are really inseparable from Clarke's gritty style. Scum's BBC version is intentionally murky, and probably comes off the worst of the bunch, but it's wholly appropriate to the subject matter and as I mentioned earlier, helps the film rather than hinders it. The sound in this set is well-rendered and always clear, although most North American audiences will want to turn on the English subtitles to navigate through some of the accents and British slang terminology that can be confusing. Scum's new surround mix is a little extraneous, but those that want to listen to this option will find it does a respectable job in diverting some atmospheric effects to the back channels. There are no issues at all with Blue Underground's excellent presentation of these films.
On to the plentiful extras: The fifth disc in the set contains an hour-long made-for-TV documentary called Director: Alan Clarke. Made just shortly after his death for the BBC, this is a solid look at Clarke's film style that features interviews from the likes of Danny Boyle, Tim Roth, Ray Winstone, and other notable figures that Clarke worked with, as well as some archive footage of the man himself. The highlights here are a few peeks at some of the other films Clarke made that haven't been included on this set, as well as some great behind-the-scenes footage of Elephant which focus on the use of the Steadicam in the film.
Besides a few still galleries, a trailer for Scum, there are short video interviews with Tim Roth, Scum's writer Roy Minton and producer Clive Parson and some comments about Elephant from Gary Oldman, David Hare, and Molly Clarke. The rest of the extras come in the form of commentaries, which range across the board in terms of subject matter, but not quality. Winstone delivers interesting tracks on the theatrical version of Scum, as well as selected scenes in the original, which is also covered thoroughly by producer Margaret Matheson, and actors Phil Daniels and David Threlfall in a second commentary. These tracks delve into almost every aspect of the film, including the notorious BBC ban. Roth takes the reigns for Made in Britain, delivering an acting-centric discussion of the film, which is balanced out by a second commentary in which Margaret Matheson returns with writer David Leland. Both are worth a listen, but ultimately it's Matheson and Leland who give the picture a little more context. The fourth disc contains both Elephant and The Firm, so there isn't much room for much else, but Trainspotting director Danny Boyle, who produced Elephant, adds a commentary track anyway. While ultimately absorbing, there are several few pauses in this track, as Boyle gets lost in the action on screen.
I have the sinking feeling that many people are going to pass up this fantastic box set simply because Alan Clarke is not as well-known on this side of the Atlantic. That's a definite shame, since his work definitely deservers a wider audience. Scum is unrelentingly brutal, a varied and detailed study of a crumbling social system that could not be more highly recommended, but Clarke's later films are not to be missed either. Blue Underground has definitely done the director a great service with this engaging retrospective.
Not guilty. The Alan Clarke Collection is an absolute kick in the bollocks.
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Scales of Justice, Scum (BBC Version)
Perp Profile, Scum (BBC Version)
Studio: Blue Underground
Distinguishing Marks, Scum (BBC Version)
• Audio Commentary with Stars Phil Daniels and David Threlfall and Producer Margaret Matheson
Scales of Justice, Scum (Theatrical Version)
Perp Profile, Scum (Theatrical Version)
Studio: Blue Underground
Distinguishing Marks, Scum (Theatrical Version)
• Audio Commentary with Star Ray Winstone
Scales of Justice, Made In Britain
Perp Profile, Made In Britain
Studio: Blue Underground
Distinguishing Marks, Made In Britain
• Audio Commentary with Star Tim Roth
Scales of Justice, Elephant
Perp Profile, Elephant
Studio: Blue Underground
Distinguishing Marks, Elephant
• Audio Commentary with Producer Danny Boyle
Scales of Justice, The Firm
Perp Profile, The Firm
Studio: Blue Underground
Distinguishing Marks, The Firm
• Still Galleries
Review content copyright © 2004 Paul Corupe; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.