Rob Harmon’s Picks 2/8/22 — “Last Night in Soho” (2021), starring Thomasin McKenzie & Anya Taylor-Joy

Rob Harmon.

At the outset, “Last Night in Soho” (2021, dir. Edgar Wright) appears to be a sunny valentine to the city of London and its most famous “moment”: the 1960s. Eloise “Ellie” Turner (Thomasin McKenzie, “Leave No Trace”) is an introverted but gifted, aspiring fashion designer who, though she has been raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham, “A Taste of Honey,” “The Leather Boys,” “The Knack”) far from the urban pulse of England’s capital, has grown up obsessed with the music and fashion of the Swinging Sixties.

Perhaps she lives symbolically in the shadow of her dead mother, a once promising young designer herself who committed suicide when Ellie was young. Ominously, Ellie occasionally sees her ghost in mirrors, and though she views her as a protective spirit, she does her best to hide these sightings from her grandmother. Ellie implicitly seems to have some sort of connection to the dead, which may or may not link her to her mother’s tragic demise.

When Ellie wins a scholarship to the London College of Fashion she seems poised to finally achieve her dreams but the reality is much harsher as she experiences the cruelty of modern urban and college life and particularly feels the barbs of her arrogant roommate, Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen). Despite the fact that she also meets cute and likable fellow classmate John (Michael Ajao), Ellie is crestfallen by her early experiences at school and decides to rent a flat off-campus from the stern but seemingly understanding Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, “The Avengers,” “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” “The Assassination Bureau”) in the neighborhood of Soho, traditionally famous for its nightlife.

During her first night sleeping in the new bed-sit, Ellie dreams and finds herself in the Sixties London of her deepest fantasies, to her surprise experiencing the world through the lens of a young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch,” “Thoroughbreds,” “Emma”) who is eerily also trying to “make it.” Ellie continues to be transported nightly, vicariously experiencing the London of the past through Sandie and her path to seeming stardom as a singer. Ellie discovers a renewed spring in her step and rebounds in her studies and adjustment to urban life.

That is, until she begins to notice discordant warning signs in her dreams that perhaps Sandie and her mysterious story, not only did not end well, but are still around and unresolved, dragging the bloody spirits of the past into a very dangerous and un-romanticized present!

47-year old British filmmaker Edgar Wright is a sort of cinematic chameleon, tailoring his immense talents to whatever suits his current project, from apocalyptic zombie satire (“Shaun of the Dead”) to fast-paced buddy cop free-for-all (“Hot Fuzz”) to music-fueled millennial actioner (“Baby Driver”). In “Last Night in Soho,” Wright’s obsessions, like Ellie’s, are on full display and no doubt he shares many, if not all, of hers. In addition, he fuses the frenetic energy and jazziness of the British New Wave (films such as “A Taste of Honey,” “This Sporting Life,” “Room at the Top,” “The Pumpkin Eater,” “Georgy Girl,” and “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”)—which displayed a poignant and touching concern with human-scale drama—with ghoulish horror. His palette paints from the garish colors of Hammer films of the 50s, 60s, and 70s and the drippingly bloody, ruby-red grand guignol of Italian giallo shockers of a similar period.

The title of “Last Night in Soho” is a reference to the 1968 song by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (yes, that’s a real band!) whose bombastic and histrionic soundscape seems to act as a sort of spiritual guide for the film. Additionally, Wright lends considerable stature by peopling his landscape with 60s luminaries such as Tushingham, Rigg, and Terence Stamp, who plays a mysterious regular at the pub where Ellie works. Aside from the appealing young leads, praise must be singled out for the late, great Rigg who goes out in fiery fashion in her final film role! (The film is appropriately dedicated “for Diana”.) At times, “Last Night in Soho” feels a bit too all-over-the-place but somehow Wright holds it together, molding his singularly kaleidoscopic creation into something unique and substantial.

Yet, perhaps the real star of Wright’s film is the city of London, itself. Thankfully, and refreshingly, the film side-steps mere hero worship in pursuit of a more fleshed-out portrait of the British capital.

In fact, in spirit, the film reminds me most of the London of Stephen Sondheim’s Victorian-set potboiler musical Sweeney Todd. In the song “No Place Like London,” the jaded title character sneeringly sings that “there’s no place like London” in grandly ascending tones up until the final word “London,” when the notes drop off flatly and unsatisfyingly. Later, Todd responds to the innocent enthusiasm of the sailor Anthony: “You are young/ life has been kind to you/ you… will… learn.” The final phrase is like an ominous warning to the youthfully star-struck of the world—a character like Ellie in “Last Night in Soho,” for example, who does not yet know any better but is about to be introduced to the seedy underbelly of the great city known as London.

Rob Harmon’s Picks 1/25/22 — “Edge of the City” (1957), starring Sidney Poitier & John Cassavetes

BVFCC staffer Rob Harmon.

In “Edge of the City” (1957, dir. Martin Ritt), drifter Axel Nordmann (John Cassavetes, in a key early performance) arrives at the New York City docks looking for work as a stevedore (or longshoreman). He quickly finds it through a murky connection to crooked foreman Charlie Malick (Jack Warden), who, it turns out, receives kickbacks from the men working under him.

Axel, who gives his last name as North to cover up a past crime, has seemingly been on the run for a while – he phones his parents at home in Gary, Indiana, but freezes up and is unable to say anything once they get on the line. Axel finds redemption through his friendship with Tommy Tyler (Sidney Poitier, also in an important early role), another foreman who is the polar opposite of Malick: free-spirited and life-affirming. In a beautiful scene early in the movie, Nordmann and Tyler sit by the water while Tyler offers food and conversation to the young drifter: the shimmering river behind the two men is significant as it frames them and their budding friendship. It is the first time to this point where the screen has not felt dense with the clutter of city life but instead free and breathable.

As the friendship develops, Nordmann moves to Harlem near Tyler and his wife Lucy (Ruby Dee) and meets local school teacher Ellen Wilson (Kathleen Maguire). Eventually, Nordmann must face up to his past as well as the corruption that he and Tyler deal with everyday on the docks.

The film features a dynamic music score by Leonard Rosenman (a favorite composer of mine ever since I saw Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in middle school!) and great black-and-white on-location photography around New York City by Joseph Brun (Odds Against Tomorrow, Who Killed Teddy Bear). The film was pioneering in the portrayal of an interracial friendship – apparently MGM produced it knowing that it would not play on movie screens in the South, a brave move! Also brave was the decision by producer David Susskind (later a prominent TV talk show host) to hire Martin Ritt to direct. This was Ritt’s first credit in a long career which included “Hud,” “Sounder,” and “Norma Rae.” Ritt, a friend and protege of Elia Kazan, had earlier been blacklisted.

“Edge of the City” was an adaptation of a 1955 TV movie called “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall” written by Robert Alan Aurthur, who also writes the screenplay here. While maybe a bit overly-redolent of “On the Waterfront,” “Edge of the City” still deserves to be regarded in its own right for its gritty look and subject matter, the performances of Cassavetes and Poitier, and the moving friendship across the racial divide which forms the heart of the movie.

When Sidney Poitier passed away on the 6th of this month at the age of 94, my first impulse was to call my mom. When I was in middle school, Mom recognized that I was becoming a film buff and one day said to me, “Let’s watch some movies starring a very special actor named Sidney Poitier.” I had heard of Poitier but had no idea who he was. Over the course of a few weeks, we watched together on VHS “The Defiant Ones,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lilies of the Field,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “A Patch of Blue,” and “To Sir, with Love.” I have seen other Poitier films since then but I always think of how fun it was to watch those movies with her. She was right: he was a great actor and a great man. I called her right after I watched “Edge of the City,
a few days after Poitier had died.

“Thank you for introducing me to Sidney Poitier, Mom!”

And thank you, Mr. Poitier!