Director: Ken Hughes
Screenplay: Ken Hughes
Based on the TV play by: Ken Hughes
Producers: Frank Godwin
Starring: Anthony Newley, Wilfrid Bramble, Warren Mitchell, Julia Foster
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 107 mins
One of the great joys of being a film fan is making your way through the long list of acknowledged classics, falling in love with the works of great directors or pondering just why you didn’t have quite the same reaction as the critics to a particular film. But an equally and often even greater thrill is to be found in the experience of discovering a film you love in the wastepile of those cast aside by the majority, hastily declared unworthy of the canon or simply overlooked for whatever reason. Singin’ in the Rain belongs to the world but discover a battered, unloved Aladdin’s lamp of a movie beneath the detritus and that belongs to you. I’ve done it many times over the years with films like Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight, Fred Coe’s A Thousand Clowns and Jindrich Polak’s Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea. Rooting through the backrooms of cinema history keeps turning up surprises though and I was particularly excited to discover that Studiocanal were planning to release Ken Hughes’s all-but-forgotten gem The Small World of Sammy Lee.
I first saw The Small World of Sammy Lee several years ago and thought it was fantastic but for many years it has only been available as part of Studiocanal’s The London Collection boxset. With this new stand-alone release, I jumped at the chance to revisit the streets of Soho as seen through the eyes of director Ken Hughes. Hughes is not that well-known a director, although he did subsequently co-write and direct the perennial children’s classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Those expecting flying cars and jolly singalongs should look elsewhere, however, as The Small World of Sammy Lee focuses on a distinctly less magical world. Sammy Lee (Anthony Newley) is the compère of a sleazy Soho strip club whose gambling debts have far exceeded what he can afford. When a bookie sends two heavies to take care of the matter, Sammy manages to persuade them to give him five hours to raise the money. The film follows Sammy as he tries to balance his job, his quest and his own complex moral code across the course of one desperate afternoon.
The film has a classic set up then, placing a clock on the action and establishing a quest narrative that remains gripping throughout. But the film has so much more going for it than simple suspense. Hughes has done a magnificent job with the script, which builds up the tension but mixes it with well-written, dialogue-heavy scenes in which Sammy must use his persuasiveness, wit and ingenuity to cajole money out of anyone he can. Mention must also be made of Hughes’s superb direction. It is clear from the opening tracking shot around the streets of 60s Soho that The Small World of Sammy Lee is something special. These beautiful images not only make you want to time travel, they almost impose time travel on you. There’s a wonderful freedom in vicariously walking around this decades-old version of Soho, a freedom that quickly drains away as the claustrophobia of Sammy’s surroundings become all too clear, as highlighted by the film’s clever title.
While the script and direction are indeed wonderful, it is the casting that pushes The Small World of Sammy Lee from entertaining curio into the realms of lost classic. The cast is peppered with familiar faces for British audiences, from sitcom stars Lynda Baron, Wilfred Brambell, Derek Nimmo and Warren Mitchell (particularly good as Sammy’s brother in one of the core emotional scenes of the film) to film stars Roy Kinnear and Robert Stephens (excellent as the loathsome club owner). But amongst these terrific supporting players, it is Anthony Newley in the central role who makes the film work so well. An enigmatic entertainer, Newley had his fingers in all sorts of pies from film acting (memorably as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s Oliver Twist) and stage work to a pop music career and talent for songwriting. An acknowledged influence on the early work of David Bowie, Newley had two number one hits under his own name and would also co-write such well-known songs as Feeling Good and Goldfinger with his songwriting partner Leslie Bricusse. He and Bricusse were also Oscar nominated for their score for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Newley’s wide-ranging talent is immediately clear in The Small World of Sammy Lee as he slips effortlessly between the roles of desperate man and hack comedian, jumping on and off stage as he attempts to keep a grip on his job and his health. Newley makes Sammy both likeable and loathsome, an opportunistic but basically sympathetic man whose attempts to protect wide-eyed young hopeful Julia Foster from the leering patrons of the strip club he detests but relies upon show him at his best, even if he played no small part in dragging her into that world. Newley is just phenomenal in getting the complexity of Sammy across and manages to give Sammy a blackly comic sense of caricature that is offset by the alarming realness of the situation he finds himself in.
Perhaps because of its more contrived central premise and Soho setting, The Small World of Sammy Lee is rarely considered alongside the great kitchen sink dramas of the early 60s but I would certainly place in within this oeuvre. Sammy’s predicament may not have the humdrum realism of Billy Fisher’s or Arthur Seaton’s but as he tries to avoid the imminent danger of a brutal beating, we see every element of Sammy’s world from his repetitive, depressing job through his uneasy relationship with family and his temporary escape route through compulsive gambling. The tragedy of it all is that we quickly come to realise that if Sammy gets away with his skin this time, it won’t make his world any bigger or brighter than before and, consequently, he’ll soon be forced into this desperate dash around the streets of London all over again, in perpetuity, until his charm or his luck runs out. The ending, without giving anything away, seems to acknowledge this in a way which the audience can choose to take as positive or negative. Whichever way you see it though, you’ll probably just be delighted to have discovered another unsung classic behind the threadbare curtain marked ‘crticially unappreciated.’
The Small World of Sammy Lee is released on EST, DVD and, for the first time, on Blu-ray on 14th November 2016. Extras are as follows:
– New interview with Julia Foster
-New interview with Mike Hodges
– New locations featurette with Richard Dacre