Sunday, May 05, 2019

The Heart Within: Race, class and bombsites

You can watch the 1957 film The Heart Within free of charge on the British Film Institute website.

The blurb there explains why you might want to:
Teenager Danny lives in London's docklands and befriends Victor, a Trinidadian dock worker, who becomes the chief suspect in a murder in this low budget crime thriller which cleverly mixes Boy's Own adventure with social realism. It gives postwar Britain's most prominent black actor, Earl Cameron, one of his best screen roles as a man on the run for a crime he didn't commit. 
This is a departure from other 1950s British films which located black characters in colonial Africa and viewed them as 'problems' or 'exotics'. The Kings of the Caribbean provide some great calypso music.
All that is true, but there are two other reason why this film interests me.

The first is that Danny is played by David Hemmings, who crops up on this blog regularly. Here he is aged 15 or 16, but playing a couple of years younger.

The second is that the film is largely set on London's postwar bombsites, whose treatment in films of was the subject of a recent post on this blog.

Hemmings' Danny is very much a character from Hue and Cry - he has a paper round and is saving up to buy a watch, which in those days was a powerful symbol of adult status.

Yet the bombsites are still depicted as somewhere that people on the wrong side of the law hang out and where Danny is threatened.

On the other hand, that threat goes hand in hand with beauty. I often get the sense that postwar London was an exotic city.

The damage done by the bombing opened up new vistas of Wren's Italianate churches and the bombsites themselves would have been alive with rosebay willow herb and other flowering plants. Rose Macaulay's novel The World My Wilderness conveys this view of London in the period.

A word too on class. The portrayal of working-class characters is often excruciating in British films of this period - see Kathleen Harrison's turn as Violet the maid in The Winslow Boy if you doubt me.

But here James Hayter, product of a Scottish public school, and Hemmings, product of lower middle class Kingston Upon Thames, deliver likeable and convincing performances as cockneys.

Hayter is Hemmings' grandfather and cares for him. The fate of his parents is never mentioned, but you sense they lost their lives to the bombing that produced the landscape of the film,

One final point: I was convinced that I remembered a scene where Hemmings had been told off by the police inspector and was sprawled out and sulking as a result.

His body language, I recalled, was precisely the same as in Blow-Up nine years later.

Sadly, having skimmed through the film on the BFI site, I cannot find the scene. I fear it is too good to be true and that I imagined it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As someone who once lived in London's dockland, I do have to point out that the warm hearted proletarians who laboured day in, day out on the river would to a man gently steer away anyone from the West Indies seeking employment there as being below his dignity - or summat like that