Neglected British film directors | Seth Holt
In the first of our series on British filmmakers who deserve another look, Alan Price explores the work of SETH HOLT (1923 -1971)
The recent DVD release of Seth Holt’s Nowhere to Go (1958) is a timely reminder of one of England’s most intelligent and original directors. Holt’s first feature has a European noirish energy that’s prescient of ideas to be later fully realised over the Channel. Critics citing the initial feature of the French New wave choose Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958). In December of that same year, Nowhere to Go was released – the last film produced by Ealing Studios and the most un-Ealing of films.
Nowhere to Go has the texture and atmosphere of a Jean Pierre Melville crime movie, displays a smoother sense of narrative expediency (or qausi-jump cuts) just before Godard’s Breathless (1960) and carefully creates a gritty, though stylised, realism comparable to Joseph Losey’s early British productions. It also contains the screen debut of Maggie Smith; revealing that amongst Holt’s many talents was his sensitive direction of women. Susan Strasberg, Carroll Baker and Bette Davis star in later Seth Holt films. Those performances can rank with their very best work.
What most distinguishes Nowhere to Go is the remarkable editing. Holt’s apprenticeship was as an editor on such distinguished films as Mandy, The Lavender Hill Mob and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. You have only to watch Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) going through his tedious routine, on the factory lathe, in the opening of Reitz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, to experience cutting of an admirable precision. Finney’s great line, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” is memorably overlaid on the soundtrack as he grinds out a never ending line of machine parts.
Holt’s editing of his own films was approached rather differently. In 1982 the magazine Film Dope published an interview Holt had given in 1963, but which had not previously seen the light of day. Here Holt mentioned the word syncopated in relation to editing. “It isn’t quite the same as simply overlaying. You cut away just off where you feel the emphasis should be, and it gives quite an exciting rhythmic texture.”
In Nowhere to Go we see the beginning of Holt’s concern with rhythm. Essentially the film is a man hunt drama with Paul Gregory (George Nader), an escaped criminal, trying to collect money from the sale of stolen valuable coins kept in a safe deposit box. The fragmentary way Holt employs Dizzy Reece’s excellent jazz score, each time he is thwarted in his efforts to get the money, is suspenseful and slightly out of kilter. The effect of this collision of sound and image reveals Gregory’s isolation and frustration. Holt (pictured above) presents us with scene after scene where all of Gregory’s scheming and effort leads to a desperate nothing. Back to the Film Dope interview. Holt regards Gregory as a central character “who doesn’t seem to feel very sorry for himself.” Kenneth Tynan wrote the script together with Holt and together they tried to break away from the stereotyped image of the British screen criminal. In Nowhere to Go Holt introduces the idea of betrayal and the complexities of deception – a theme of all his subsequent films.
Critics have been rather facile in taking the title Nowhere to Go to describe Holt’s ‘unfulfilled’ career in British cinema. Too often they’ve spoken of the director’s ambition unrealised and/or compromised. David Thompson wrote that Seth Holt produced “six features of unrelenting promise” To which I would add that they are also six features with much that’s unrelentingly successful. Holt’s cinematic rewards greatly compensate for any flaws. And Seth Holt definitely had somewhere to go with his next three films: Taste of Fear, Station Six Sahara and The Nanny.
In Taste of Fear Holt pulled off a very atmospheric Hammer film. Its wheel-chaired heroine, Penny (Susan Strasberg) is certainly devoid of any obvious self-pity. The film’s plot is an old and creaky one about the efforts of a stepmother Jayne (Anne Todd) and her chauffeur lover, Bob (Ronald Lewis) to murder daughter Penny and claim a large inheritance. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster was no Kenneth Tynan. His plot contrivances can appear, after the credits role up, to have seriously undermined things. Yet you are gripped by Holt’s immersive and canny direction, with its subtle framing of scenes (such as wheel- chaired Penny edging towards a swimming pool at night). Of course it’s a Hammer project. But Seth Holt is no Hammer House style director. With its Psycho influenced shock moments, Taste of Fear pushes out into a subtle exploration of character. Unfortunately, Holt’s visual skill at suspense is at variance with Sangster’s obvious solutions. This very good horror film doesn’t quite come off because the characters are just a little too stock to fully come alive. All the film’s excellent acting finally fails to overcome the machinations of the plot.
The case made for Seth Holt’s failure to make his career blossom has been put down to alcoholism, rubbing film industry executives up the wrong way and being landed with projects unworthy of his talents. You can make a case for Holt’s drinking and difficult temperament (even Bette Davis found him a ‘ruthless’ director). However he could work wonders with well worn themes and genre clichés. In The Nanny, Bette Davis delivers, post-Baby Jane, a really chilling performance. Her passive/aggressive response to children and stealthy control of parents is not due solely to her enormous talent but Holt’s skill in getting his great star not to over-act. You only have to compare Davis’s over the top and rather unpleasant performance in The Anniversary, to see that Holt could make his screen women a driving force through powerful understatement. Again it is a Jimmy Sangster script and there are problems. But this is certainly not the “spirited pot-boiler” dubbed by Time Out. For Holt creates a sharp cat and mouse game of rivalry and deceit between Nanny and her ten year old boy (William Dix) just released from a psychiatric hospital.
The Nanny (1965) is a good film, but coming straight after the remarkable Station Six Sahara (1962) an anti-climax. For of all his films, and the reason why Seth Holt should be better known today, Station Six Sahara crackles with great originality and confidence. Perhaps it’s because the film is an English/German co-production, made in the desert and he had more freedom on the shoot. Like Joseph Losey, Holt had an acute sense of hypocrisy, sexual repression and class tensions. Yet he didn’t necessarily need the social setting of England in order to play out such conflicts.
Station Six Sahara is enacted in an oil pumping station in the Sahara desert. The boss is Kramer (Peter van Eyck) a German, ex-military man. Second in command is Macey (Denholm Elliot) another army officer and ex pat. Fletcher (Ian Bannen) a working class Scot, Martin (Hansjorg Felmy) a younger Southern German and Santos (Mario Adorf) make up the rest of the crew. A tense game ensues between the snobbish Macey and the vulgar Fletcher. Macey receives more letters than anyone else. Fletcher buys one letter from Macey with his month’s salary. The undisclosed letter is tauntingly employed as a possible love letter against the arrogant Macey. Though only an important secondary story of Station Six Sahara, it makes for some wonderfully funny scenes of class anger. Denholm Elliot and Ian Bannen give terrific performances and obviously relished Brian Clemens’ and Bryan Forbes’ script.
This sold letter plotline, the clash between the two efficient Germans, and an excitingly directed poker game scene, replete with the hot and sweaty atmosphere of the desert, make up the first third of Station Six Sahara. When Catherine (Carroll Baker) and her ex-husband Jimmy (Biff McGuire) crash their car into the station we are into more interesting sensual and sexual developments. Catherine is no longer in love with Jimmy. She is a free, and importantly for a 1962 movie, a liberated woman. Catherine chooses her men for sex. Kramer cannot control her, neither can any of the other men. She cannot be dominated.
You might feel that at this point Station Six Sahara would fall into some cheesy and steamy melodrama. Yet Holt, and the film’s writing, sends it into other directions.
Carroll Baker’s sexy character manages to be blousy, sultry, calculating and ultimately sad. Holt’s direction sides with Catherine, then criticises her but allows a sympathetic and strong personality to emerge. In no way, does Holt voyeuristically play up the box office appeal of Carroll Baker. The scene where she’s sitting outdoors dressed in a bikini and shorts was obviously meant as a selling point for the film. Catherine is well aware of being sexually provocative, yet she’s even more determined to just sit around in the sun and damm any man who approaches her (Carroll Baker pitches her fine performance with a knowing ambivalence). Kramer rushes over to complain and ‘cover her up’. Catherine makes us positively share her anger at his intervention.
Holt’s interviewer in Film Dope, says of Station Six. “Would you be offended if the film were called pornographic?” To which Holt replies, “I prefer the term erotic.” Indeed it’s the erotic tension of the film that makes for its unpredictability. Though the eroticism is concentrated on Baker, it is also subtly diffused amongst the male relationships. Their macho behaviour has limits. Any instant sexual gratification proves sweet, short and is frustratingly terminated. Without being gay or homoerotic there’s a strong sense of frustrated love for each other arising out of the boredom and routine of an isolated work place. Vulnerability and loneliness is written into their roles. They’re failures and misfits, leftovers from the nationalism and imperialism of WW2 now stuck in the desert. Station Six Sahara creates its own world of intense moods and atmosphere. It feels like the work of an accomplished auteur. And behind his authorship Holt’s ‘syncopated’ editing is strikingly original and intelligent. Holt says he subscribed to Eisenstein and Pudovkin theories, but he never bludgeons us with a Russian dialectical montage. Whenever he employs Ron Grainger’s score and much uncredited African music it is done with aim to unsettle the audience emotionally. These disruptions or ‘omissions’ in the story contain visuals that are personally tuned to each actor. Holt always knows where to place his camera and challenge the viewer. And with Station Six’s desert location and sets, Holt and photographer Gerald Gibbs conjure up a weary, bleached look that beautifully complements the story.
After this near-masterpiece, Holt’s final three films The Nanny, Danger Route, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb can appear artistically subdued. Yet they have their moments, insights and excitement. Apart from Bette Davis’s presence, The Nanny contains some fine visual framing of her vindictive behaviour. Danger Route (a sub-Bond like thriller) picks up twenty minutes into the film when Holt is obviously enjoying directing Diana Dors. And it picks up even more at the end when Carole Lynley is imaginatively observed and killed by her lover and rival spy played by Richard Johnson.
Sadly Holt died, aged only forty eight, on the set of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. This Hammer production was hurriedly finished by Michael Carreras – and it shows despite Holt’s own material achieving an ancient Egyptian strangeness that equals the best films of the Mummy genre, and (like Danger Route) echoing his themes of treacherous behaviour.
Before his death Holt was originally up for producing If… But that was handed over to Michael Medwin and Lindsay Anderson. The rest is sweet film history. Though if Holt had had a go at the public school system I doubt that his and Anderson’s ego would have got on well together.
We are left with so few films. Along with Holt’s four excitingly directed episodes of the TV series Danger Man, and apart from Station Six Sahara, they are easily available on commercial DVD’s (though Danger Route is a bootleg issue). But the absence of an official DVD release of Station Six Sahara is the biggest injustice of all for Seth Holt. You can only buy a DVD bootleg version online. Or watch all of the film on the Vimeo website plus view extracts on YouTube.
Holt has a small and faithful cult following. And Martin Scorsese is reported to be a great admirer of Station Six Sahara. Can you intervene, Martin? Help to have it re-mastered onto BLU-RAY and organise an outing on the big screen of this criminally neglected film, please! Alan Price