Nothing But the Best (1964) signifies a turning point in the British new wave: a sudden flip from grim northern drama to swinging London archness, here under the controls of three masters of that tone.
1. Frederic Raphael is best known for writing Two For the Road (impossibly arch) and Eyes Wide Shut (strange... very strange), and this film does have some kind of commonality with those: glamorous young people, sporty cars, hard-to-get-into parties in sprawling country houses... but in essence it's more like a glib black comedy version of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Raphael had previously adapted the source story (by American crime writer Stanley Ellin) as a TV play, and in expanding it for cinema he threw out the ironic twist of fate that dooms the murderous, social-climber anti-hero, perhaps seeing it as an old-fashioned harking-back to Kind Hearts and Coronets (whose ironic twist was imposed by the censor). Now that the sixties are getting properly underway, our sinners and criminals can start getting away with murder.
Raphael actually called the thing "a somewhat larky version of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy," and claimed the tone came out of his insecurity as a Jewish American immigrant to England who had arrived aged seven. Like James Brewster, his Ripley, he had to learn to behave like the upper crust in order to get along.
2. Clive Donner, the director, had a very inconsistent career. Some of his more celebrated films, like the swinging Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968), are bloody dreadful. This has several of the same cast members but a much more certain touch, though the wipes are a big mistake. Tom Jones had come out the year before and was full of trick opticals, actually the result of a loss of confidence by director Tony Richardson during the edit. So he tried to jazz the thing up and within a year everyone was copying his nervous tics.
Donner had also made Dr. Crippen and The Caretaker, both excellent, both with Donald Pleasence, and shot, like this film, by the great Nicolas Roeg. Ah, but this one is in pearlescent Eastmancolor and has a lush, Sunday supplement magazine look. Dreamy.
3. Alan Bates had become a star in A Kind of Loving—he was part of the generation who had lost their working-class accents when they became actors, only to have to recover them when British cinema took a sudden dive into the kitchen sink. But he got out of that as soon as possible and clearly was looking to establish himself as a player with range. While his previous triumph (which is also like An American Tragedy, only without a death) capitalized on his soulful eyes, a little-boy-lost quality, here he's completely soulless and rotten.
James Brewster is a property developer, working his way up in his company and in life by viciously backstabbing those around him. He seizes a chance when he meets disgraced rich brat Denholm Eliot (making the leap sideways from juvenile second leads, which didn't suit him, to seedy character roles which did, and how). Eliot can train him in how to dress, behave, what opinions to have. He shows him how to fake it until he makes it. Pretend you went to Cambridge and did history: you'll never be expected to know anything about history, but you'll appear to be the right kind of person.
Bates is a gorgeous star—snide and sexy and flippant and brooding. But Eliot brings the entertainment: Raphael writes a great bastard, exuding self-confidence like musk, commenting smugly on his own billiards game (potting the red with the cue behind him: "Gaudy, but sound.") It's really a shame he has to die, Frenzy-style, throttled with a necktie and sealed in a trunk. Not that he doesn't deserve it.
The film's calculated moral outrageousness about sex and murder and class and capitalism is dated in places, only because black comedies have been made much blacker since, and lines like "Flattery will get you everywhere," have been repeated until their more familiar than the original phrases they're riffing on. But it still has something: cheek, certainly. Plus, due to the property market plot element, it has scenes in empty houses, which are always good. Furniture has held British cinema back too long.