Ken Hughes was an interesting character. The closest thing I have to a personal anecdote came from an old friend who was an assistant director: "Ken Hughes was the dirtiest man I ever met." I don't really know what he meant by that, and it may be unfair. But you can see little hints in his work.
Hughes is best-remembered today for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), and he did some of the better work in the astonishing sixties farrago Casino Royale (1967), but none of that really typifies him. His best film may be The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963), which he wrote as well as directed, and which brought to a kind of climax his early thriller period.
Hughes' first film, in 1952, was Wide Boy (a slang term for a dodgy geezer, which is a slang term for a wide boy), about a lowlife blackmailer, not a distinguished work but an unusual one for its frankness about the anti-hero's Jewishness. Sammy Lee is a much more ambitious version of the same kind of thing, and stars Anthony Newley as the title character, a strip club compère who straddles an unsteady line between show business and criminality. Newley had been David Lean's Artful Dodger, wrote the lyrics for Goldfinger, married Joan Collins, and was an oddball music and film star, his diminutive size and unconventional bad looks failing to disguise a forceful personality and talent. He directed one of the sixties' worst art films.
Sammy Lee has a gambling problem, never explicitly named as an addiction, and owes three hundred pounds. He manages to buy himself five hours to try to scrape together the cash, and spends the film running around between performances at the Peekaboo club, doing deals, dealing drugs, conning, buying and selling and "borrowing," and finally selling the one thing he swore he'd never sell. He's also trying to deal with a young girl from the north he seduced some months before and who has unfortunately turned up to make good on his lying promise to get her a job at "his" club.
It's in the club that we see Hughes' sensibility, which mixes the sharp social observation of the kitchen sink school, a cartoonist's eye for grotesquerie, and a leering vulgarity where female flesh is concerned. While the film paints probably the seediest portrait of its milieu of any of the numerous Soho stripshow movies of the time (Beat Girl, Expresso Bongo), and it's very good at the triangulated contempt powering the place (the management despises the girls, the girls hate the punters, the punters hate themselves), there are no expressionist-weird girls, they're all succulent if slatternly (details like the girl carefully sticking her gum to a lighting stand before going on really add flavor), and Hughes evinces a Game of Thrones-style eagerness to jump in for a close-up on any unfastening garments. It's delicious in a horrid way, or vice versa, and you'd have to be pretty dirty to want to present this setting, or be able to.
Best of all is Robert Stephens as the utterly nasty boss, hair oiled back to create a beetle-black carapace over his distressingly small cranium, lips curled in a perpetual sneer ("You can't cast Robert Stephens without making use of a certain fleshy quality," wrote Jonathan Miller). He's aided by terrific support from Wilfred Brambell (Paul's grandpa in A Hard Day's Night), Roy Kinnear, Miriam Karlin (the Cat Lady in Clockwork Orange), and many others. When he buys dope (which he immediately cuts with tobacco before reselling at a profit), it's from Al Muloch, who achieved cadaverous immortality in a pair of Sergio Leone westerns (the first face you see, in extreme closeup, in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). The powerhouse Warren Mitchell plays Sammy's honest, put-upon brother, adding extra ethnic authenticity and a lot more sympathy.
The movie never worries, you see, about giving us a good reason to care about Sammy's plight. As with probable inspiration The Sweet Smell of Success, it assumes that if a fundamentally bad character tackles a problem we can understand with intelligence and energy, we won't be able to stop ourselves from becoming interested and maybe even implicated. And this works.
The unpleasant atmosphere seems to creep into your clothes as you watch. Location filming (we prowl past overflowing garbage cans outside early morning strip joints under the opening credits) and really detailed production design (feet walking by outside the cellar window where Sammy loses all his money in scene one) give it a you-are-there-but-don't-want-to-be authenticity. When Sammy faces his Calvary, it's on at a garbage-strewn bomb site dominated by a huge, illuminated CinemaScope billboard, left blank, a rain-streaked void to backlight the sinister silhouettes bearing down on our anti-protagonist, and to frame the stark void within him.
Hughes' work with cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky (Get Carter) is incredible, marked by dazzlingly tight compositions and movements (got to be careful not to show too much skin in 1963), which also help explain why Hughes was one of the few Brits who could film dance sequences well (see Joanna Pettet's Indian number in Casino Royale). His style is very kinetic and American, but he's also borrowing eclectically from European cinema: a pensive freeze-frame here, a dash of Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur there. And all without losing those great national qualities of nastiness, second-ratism, grubby perviness, sweaty desperation and misery. It makes you proud to be British.