I Want My Films To Get Audiences (Stephen Frears)

Stephen Frears, the British film director, served his apprenticeship in cinema at a time when London was swinging & homegrown cultural talents were finding an international audience. In 1966, when he was 25, Frears was assistant to director Karel Reisz (“Saturday Night Sunday Morning”, “Who’ll Stop the Rain”) on “Morgan:A Suitable Case for Treatment”, a brash comedy where David Warner’s Marxism switches from Karl to Harpo. He was P.A. to director/star Albert Finney for “Charlie Bubbles” (1967), a return to Manchester for the international star, Liza Minnelli’s film debut, the wonderful Billie Whitelaw & a script by Shelagh (“A Taste of Honey”) Delaney. As straight outta Salford as the Smiths. Frears was also an assistant to Lindsay Anderson for “If…” (1968), the best British film of the decade, a satire on a public school system that was anachronistic then (we all thought/hoped it would really be shot to hell) & still is now. The British Film Industry…remember that ? Blimey !


It was Albert Finney’s company that gave Stephen Frears his break as a director. “Gumshoe” (1971) stars Finney as Liverpudlian bingo caller Eddie Ginley whose Sam Spade/Bogart fantasies lead him up unlikely mean streets. It’s a smart spoof detective story, Ms Whitelaw & an outstanding cast of British character actors add value. The opportunities to make films were fewer & for the next decade Frears became established as a leading director of prestigious, quality one-off dramas made by both (!) TV companies which were as good as TV got in the 1970s. There were memorable collaborations with writer Alan Bennett. “Bloody Kids” (1980), a script by young gun Stephen Poliakoff, explores youth alienation, social discord, voyeurism & surveillance, the dark side of a society taking a wrong turn, it’s brilliant. In 1982 “Walter”, a moving story of a man with learning disabilities & his grim life in a psychiatric institution with a great performance by a young Gandalf, attracted much attention when it was the centrepiece of the opening night of Channel 4, a whole new TV channel.



In 1984 Frears returned to the big screen with “The Hit”. It’s an existential gangster road movie…triple whammy ! Of course I love it. Hit man Braddock (John Hurt) & his apprentice Myron (Tim Roth) are sent to Spain to sort out supergrass Parker (Terence Stamp), that’s quite a cast. Stamp, a major star in the 1960s, had a quiet 1970s (apart from being General Zod in 2 Superman movies). Here he’s not as volatile as he was in Soderbergh’s “The Limey” (1999). He’s accepting of & resigned to his fate & he’s up to something. John Hurt is vicious while Tim Roth, in his film debut as Myron, the YTS assassin (a part offered to Joe Strummer off of the Clash), is perfect as the young Brit abroad. Laura del Sol is a hostage in a very tight dress while the great Fernando Rey follows the trail of blood & bodies. The 1980s saw a revival of the British gangster film (those not featuring members of Spandau Ballet), “The Hit”, tense & tough, is one of the best.


There followed a run of Brit flicks. 1985’s “My Beautiful Laundrette” was a breakthrough role for Daniel Day-Lewis as a gay skinhead. Hanif Kureishi’s South London story of Johnny’s relationship with his childhood friend Omar was sensitively & effectively told & gained an international audience. “Prick Up Your Ears” (1987) is the singular story of Joe Orton, playwright, a working class hero contemporaneous with John Lennon & his tragic relationship with Kenneth Halliwell. Gary Oldman & Alfred Molina are outstanding in the lead roles, Alan Bennett’s script is faultless. It’s my favourite of this phase of Frears’ career & it’s on the Y-tube, watching it again is time well spent. “Sammy & Rosie Get Laid” (1987) is another hook-up with Kureishi, another slice of urban life in Thatcher’s Britain.



These opening credits of “The Grifters” (1990), Los Angeles in black & white, Elmer Bernstein theme, signpost that there’s a film noir ahead. There’s some heavy hitters involved, produced by Scorsese, a screenplay by Donald E Westlake from a novel by pulp great Jim Thompson. Frears had directed the film of Christopher Hampton’s play “Dangerous Liaisons”, a large-scale European production with major Hollywood stars but this was his first American movie. The triangle of confidence persons is well cast. Young Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is still learning, painfully, the small-time scams. Myra (Annette Bening) offers more than the chance to score big while his mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) has been working the angles longer than both of them. Any unflinching attempt to transfer Thompson’s dark spirit to celluloid would inevitably alienate a mass audience. “The Grifters” is tough & violent while diluting themes of incest & violent misogyny. It’s a glossy modern noir, no-one can be trusted & it’s bound to end badly for Roy. It became Frears’ first Academy Award nomination for best director.


That’s 7 feature films “directed by Stephen Frears” then & it’s not easy to pin him down to any individual style. His films effectively capture the often hermetic world of his characters, a car in Spain, a Vauxhall laundrette, an Islington bed-sit. Certainly his screenplay choices are impeccable & his skill is in delivering that quality to the screen. He is more than a safe pair of hands, able to adroitly blend drama & comedy. In the 1990s he returned from Hollywood to make parts 2 & 3 of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy. They lacked the musical attraction of part 1 “The Commitments” but both “The Van” & “The Snapper” certainly retained the sweet soul. “Mary Reilly” (1996), another Hampton script starring Julia Roberts & John Malkovich with a $47 million budget was Frears’ first real stutter.



Like many European directors who make it to Hollywood Frears made his crime movie & then his western. “The Hi-Lo Country” (1998) is set in a post-World War 2 West so cannot be anything but elegiac. Woody H, Billy Crudup & Katy Jurado, a link to the great cowboy films. It’s been a while since I saw it but it has moved to near the top of the list. “High Fidelity” (2000) transposes Nick Hornby’s novel from North London to Chicago. “Fever Pitch” had dealt with the football & Hi-Fi covers those other 2 lynchpins of a boy’s life, music & women. All of us music obsessives have spent just enough time in record shops & too much time compiling Top 5 lists. No-one minded the transatlantic shift because if anyone is going to represent us then let it be John Cusack, by now a film star & he seems to be a nice guy. We don’t, perhaps, have Catherine Zeta Jones, Lisa Bonet or Iben Hjejle in our pasts but we’ve had our moments. Not sure we would contact our exes to ask about a break up, pretty sure we wouldn’t want to hear some of the answers. It’s only a movie & one that gets the tone right from Jack Black’s Monday morning tape to Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe” playing over the credits.


The later films of Stephen Frears have been mostly British or European productions. He has continued to work with talented writers, Steven Knight’s 1st screenplay “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), Steve Coogan “Philomena” (2013). He has also returned to directing event TV dramas in Britain & the US. I’m not too interested in the Queen so Helen Mirren as “The Queen” (2006) passed me by. There was great interest though, Ms Mirren scored an Oscar & Frears a nomination for best director. This film & “Philomena” made serious money from relatively low budgets, the kind of numbers that will keep a now veteran director in work. His latest film “The Program”, a dramatisation about the delusional, drug cheat bike rider Lance Armstrong, does not match the comprehensive documentaries on the same subject. Any road up, there’s another movie in post-production, Meryl Streep in “Florence Foster Jenkins”, & a body of work, spanning 45 years, of such variety & quality that his reputation as an outstanding director is secure. Oh, I forgot to mention “Mr Jolly Lives Next Door” (1987), the funniest non-Python related thing ever shown on British TV !




A Fearful Shadow Lies Constantly Over The Residents Of Uneasy Street. (Jim Thompson)

I worked in a basement in Baltic Street, North London, between Old Street & the Goswell Road, near the Barbican. It was an old building in a funky neighbourhood, a mix of residential & small businesses. I didn’t have to punch the clock, would say “Hi” to the people in the office & disappear underground for the day. I liked the job & I was good at it. I had my coffee maker, my boombox & I was surrounded by books.

The company imported American books not published in the UK. Don, English, & Beth, American, had, at first, brought in titles they & their friends liked. Plan B was to get hold of things that actually sold & they were getting better at doing that. We distributed a lot of  “New Age” thinking, snake-oil salesmen masquerading as gurus in the Age of Aquarius. Now I’m down with Madame Blavatsky & the Theosophists but in the mid-80s the madvice was changing from “smile more & be a better human” to “smile more & make a $1,000,000”. Yuppies eh ? “Quit putting a god damn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!”. Bill Hicks & I agree on that one. Self-help ? Man, if I need a book to learn about myself & the world I reach for Dostoevsky, Philip K Dick, Bukowski, writers who I know know stuff about stuff.

My basement was the only place in town with a stack of  Charles Bukowski’s poetry books. “Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit”, ideal for lunchtime reading. We had the contract for City Lights too. A copy of “Howl”  in my pocket was more beatnik than that dumb beret I wore for a couple of weeks. We were in on a small company out of Berkeley California, Black Lizard books who were re-printing forgotten “hardboiled” fiction. The lurid, retro dime novel covers were an invitation & these short books, from the 1950s & 60s an introduction to David Goodis, Charles Willeford & a Great American writer, Jim Thompson.

I came to American crime fiction through Hollywood. I saw “The Big Sleep” (1946) & “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)  on TV, watching with my Dad. Humphrey Bogart’s world-weary, smart-mouthed tough guy detectives, Philip Marlowe & Sam Spade were as iconic to his generation as De Niro’s Travis Bickle was to mine. The films led me to the source, to Raymond Chandler & Dashiell Hammett, the twin towers of the genre, tight, “tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder” (Chandler), diamond-sharp dialogue. This pair elevated the genre from the pulp magazines & set the standard by which all crime/detective writers were measured.

I didn’t know at the time that many of the most affecting films of my youth were “film noir”. These post-war productions  presented a complex morality, heroes & anti-heroes familiar with life’s grey, shadowy areas. The books of the films by James M Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”), Horace McCoy (“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”) & Cornell Woolrich (“Rear Window”), were marine-tough, Bogart-tough. Jim Thompson is a couple of steps beyond all those guys. Inside those garish covers his bleak, nihilistic world is a stab to the solar plexus with a Louisville Slugger. Stephen King wrote “the guy was absolutely over the top. Big Jim didn’t know the meaning of the word stop”. Once I got started I didn’t want to stop either.

Jim Thompson wrote over 30 novels, 5 in 1953 & again the following year. They were published as cheap, mass-market paperbacks & by the 1960s were mostly out-of-print. Born in 1906 in Oklahoma, his experiences of Prohibition in the 1920s & the Depression of the Thirties were high & wide & hard. His books feature drifters, grifters, convicts, con-men, stand-up broads & swell-looking dames. Everybody’s trying to get by, not everybody is doing the right thing. When trouble comes around inevitably the only way out involves more trouble.

I have no list of Thompson’s best books, his stories can be slight & it’s the characters who are memorable. These people are way past sociopathic. JT’s piquancy is to show their dark inner-world, twisted logic, desperation & downright badness. In “The Getaway” Doc McCoy is a killer, a bank robber, a man with a plan. Carl Bigelow (“Savage Night”) is a scuzzy, tubercular hitman who, like young bellhop Dusty Rhodes (“A Swell-Looking Babe”) thinks with a body part other than his brain. Then there’s Roy Dillon (“The Grifters”) the short-con operator whose relationship with his mother is wrong & shocking. These fractured felons, captured with an unflinching & wry realism, stay with you. I know what Jim Thompson would have made of  those 70s New Age yuppies…mincemeat.

The Killer Inside Me' - The Most Controversial Movies on Netflix - ZimbioHollywood has adapted a number of Thompson’s books. In Sam Peckinpah’s “The Getaway” (1972) an ageing Steve McQueen takes a good shot at Doc but Ali MacGraw was nowhere near his sharp & shrewd wife Carol. His work has appealed to non-American directors. “Serie Noire” (1979) by Alain Corneau is a striking reworking of “A Hell of a Woman” while Stephen Frears’ “The Grifters” (1990) is an entertaining neo-noir but a little too glossy. It’s difficult to lasso Thompson’s spirit & engage a large audience. Michael Winterbottom’s film “The Killer Inside Me” (2010) has a starry cast in a story about a brutal psychopath, it opened in just 17 US theatres & was buried.

Further up this page I name-dropped 3 of my literary paragons. A reviewer actually termed the phrase “dime store Dostoevsky” to describe Thompson. Like Dick he was prolific, sometimes erratic but capable of unrivalled brilliance. Thompson’s portrayal of life in or near the economic & moral gutter matches Bukowski too. His insight & honesty places him in the company of all 3. Jim Thompson was not just a top crime/thriller writer, not only the most hard-boiled of the pulp pantheon but was, in my opinion, a Great American Novelist.

High Priest of the Godless: A Jim Thompson Primer | LitReactor