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The Forgotten: The Filth

David Cairns

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Film: noun
a thin layer of something on a surface
i.e. a film of dust/oil/grease, a film of smoke
dimness or morbid growth affecting the eyes

Michael Apted, a respected director of features, documentaries, and TV plays, directed The Squeeze in 1977 from a screenplay by Leon Griffiths, who had just scripted The Grissom Gang for Robert Aldrich. Both films deal with kidnappings and are unremittingly squalid and horrible. Moreover, both have an interesting transatlantic quality: the Aldrich film is adapted from No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a near-pornographic rip-off of Falkner's Sanctuary, and an American-set thriller by an author who had never set foot in the States, relying instead on a dictionary of American slang and a firm grounding in pulp fiction. (The original British adaptation has just come out on DVD). The Squeeze is much more wholeheartedly British, capturing the grunginess of the seventies just as I remember it, only worse, but it does have an American energy and savagery and an American star, Stacy Keach.

Keach manages to erase his US accent, winding up with a strange non-accent which simply cannot be placed anywhere. This could have been distracting or damaging but somehow isn't, perhaps because the actor vanishes so deeply into the physical aspects of his role, that of Jim Naboth, a disgraced, alcoholic ex-detective seemingly existing on a diet of dry Cyprus sherry, which he hopes will kill him more slowly than Scotch would. He comes complete with all the alcoholic's denials and self-justification: drinking brandy is "just something to do when I'm not drinking." Like everybody in this movie, Keach seems focussed on career suicide by investing so deeply in an unappealing character that audiences may never want to see him again. Nearly all the actors here embrace the film's miserable, loathsome and foul-smelling aesthetic, becoming one with the patina of decay and corruption encrusting the screen. After they showed it in Edinburgh Filmhouse as part of the film festival's After the Wave retrospective, it left stains of sweat and unction on the screen. They had to fumigate.

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Maybe it sounds like maybe I don't like this film. I love this dirty film! If you're going to do a nasty, unsympathetic thriller, this is what it should be like. The situation starts off bleak and gets worse. Naboth collapses in the underground, stone drunk, in scene one, and is subjected to aversion therapy (i.e. torture) in hospital. Released clean and sober he walks straight into the nearest pub. Then he learns that his ex-wife has been kidnapped, along with her daughter by new husband Edward Fox. Fox runs a security firm and the kidnappers want him to help them rob a security van of a million quid.

A couple of scenes will give you an idea of the film's ruthlessness and unpleasant ingenuity. To convince Fox his daughter's alive, and to "gee him up," the crooks arrange for an assignation at a motor-way off-road. Following their car up a country lane, he is shown his daughter in the back of the car. Then she's thrown out the back door, straight under the wheels of his Mercedes. Screeching to a horrified halt, he runs to the fallen figure and discovers that it is in fact the family dog, dragged up as his child. Meanwhile the kidnappers make their getaway.

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Watching this incident from a hilltop, Naboth has identified one of the men and learns who his boss is. Breaking into the gang leader's mansion, he is caught, beaten with a bat, forced to strip naked, and threatened with a lethal concoction of alcoholic drinks. When he invents a convincing lie to explain his presence, they drop him stark naked in front of his local church as the evening service is concluding. (As part of his general abjection, Keach is denuded multiple times in this film, like a beefy Barbarella, to the point where a serviceable alternative title might have been The Naked Detective. Or The Naked, Soiled Detective.)

There's more! Like I say, the actors make this so real and unhealthy, you can't look away even though you want to. As the man orchestrating the heist, we have David Hemmings, just beginning to really go to seed, and seemingly exulting in the hatefulness of his character. One way to play a villain is to find a sympathetic, understandable side. Another is to adopt some disguise so the audience isn't really hating you. Hemmings eschews both approaches, and is nakedly himself, only as an utterly appalling, indefensible shit.

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Hemmings's boss, who strips and humiliates Keach, is Stephen Boyd. A year away from his premature death, Boyd is gaunt and no longer recognizable as the buff, husky charioteer of Ben Hur. But he tears into his psychopathic character with relish, getting to play his own nationality (Irish) for once, and taking advantage of the fact that, as Anthony Mann complained, he doesn't have clear, open, movie-star eyes. His eyes are somewhat dead. Perfect here. Also, he quotes Koestler and believes in reincarnation, just in case he wasn't a colorful enough villain. When Hemmings suggests than Boyd's strength lies in the fact that he doesn't care what happens to anyone else, Boyd cuts him off. "My strength is, I don't care what happens to me."

As the kidnapee, the remarkable Carol White (who became a star with Ken Loach's groundbreaking realist TV play Cathy Come Home) is victimized relentlessly but not a typical victim. Resilient, tough, sarcastic, she is nevertheless beaten down and traumatized, and forced to strip (to the tune of "You Make Me Feel Brand New" by The Stylistics) in a scene of such skin-crawling degradation and horror that you may seek to clean your eyes with wire brush and Dettol after viewing it.

As her rich husband, Edward Fox is perhaps the trickiest proposition: too theatrical and too good-looking to really fit into this celluloid cesspit, he takes some time to be assimilated by the surrounding movie, but he does eventually end up subsumed, like everything else, by the crawling miasma of bad hair and peeling paint which is the surface of this film.

The whole supporting cast is outstanding. Scouse comedian Freddie Starr is natural and funny as Naboth's shoplifting friend and foil, maybe the most appealing character in the movie, with his peroxide mullet halo and sheepskin coat. Minor gang nasty Roy Marsden is so vicious, with his thin lips and cold smile, you long for the film to devote another four hours to chronicling his agonizing death throes.

Everything here, from Apted's edgy, restless filming, to the sleazy synth-rock score by Genesis producer David Hentschel, a sweaty electro-porn apocalypse breathing hot down your neck, contributes to the film's unwashed psycho glaze, its disgusted sideways sneer. And yet, there is humanity at work within it (Naboth's black neighbors are accorded a respect unusual in 70s UK cinema) and the ending seems to fuse a kind of redemption into the dead-hearted cynicism. Dark, startling, disgusting, exhilarating—a jet-ski ride through a blazing sewer.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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ColumnsMichael AptedThe Forgotten
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