Out of the Past: Otley

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Asked to name the absolute quintessence of the late-1960s film hero, whom would you choose? Benjamin Braddock? Antoine Doinel? Cool Hand Luke? Rooster Cogburn? Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid? Frank Bullitt? Wyatt or Billy from Easy Rider? My vote would go to none of these, but to Gerald Arthur Otley, the eponymous hero (played so superlatively well by Tom Courtenay) of Dick Clement’s dazzling first feature. Otley has all the wariness, all the coward’s cunning, all the what’s-in-it-for-me cynicism of the man in the 1969 street; but he also has the quick wit of the born survivor, the good luck of the sainted schlemiel who always somehow stumbles through, the street kid’s celerity in taking advantage of a sudden change in situation and the resilience of the eternally befuddled, but also eternally cocky, “little man” who gets by as much because of his smallness as his manhood. Otley is a thief, a rogue, a liar, a scrounger, a seducer of other men’s wives, and he’s no good at any of these things, and not much good at anything much else either, not even at being the layabout he so naturally is. But he has no malice in him and he loves life, even as it baffles and overlooks him.

This bovine but optimistic nincompoop is, I would suggest, a far more accurate representation of what may be pompously called the spirit of his age than are Messrs. Fonda and Hopper in Easy Rider, which appeared at almost exactly the same time. Not that Otley wants to represent anything. He’s just a “lower-middle-class grammar-school dropout” and he likes it. He never thinks of tomorrow – today gives him enough problems. Otley scrounges food and shelter from susceptible landladies in London’s Portobello Road area, and he pays for the things he can’t scrounge with cash gained from selling things (usually filched) in the Portobello open-air market. A kind of prole Roger O. Thornhill, Otley has this big difficulty: he can’t make an assortment of very odd strangers believe that he isn’t the CIA’s top man in London. Spies may be lethally efficient but they don’t appear to have much grasp of everyday reality; Otley is pretty near lethally inefficient, but he does have that grasp, because the tiny but ceaseless desperations of living hand-to-mouth constitute the only reality he really knows. Consequently, Otley, the ultimate amateur, pulls through where assorted sleek, ruthless professionals all fail. Otley lacks idealism, but also venom, and he does have wit and a sense of absurdity, including his own. It’s not surprising that director Clement should view these far more as virtues than vices, which is also how he views Otley’s cowardice, incompetence and perpetual smallness of horizons; these things were surely to be preferred to defeatism and despair, which, as the once-golden decade of the 1960s wound down, were more and more found (on a simplistic level) in mainstream cinema. 1969 was a year when depressing films which ended tragically – Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, Z, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – made big money. Gerald Arthur Otley, however, isn’t A Man Inevitably Doomed. He’s somehow resilient.

Putting this Schweikian oaf into the middle of a typical Sixties paranoia plot has the useful function of up-ending the smug sadism of the spy-movie genre. Otley doesn’t play by the usual movie rules. When his temporary landlord gets murdered in the middle of a conversation, Otley’s only reaction is to fall asleep. When threatened with torture, he hastily recommends that his captors inject him with truth drugs instead: “Do what you like with my mind, but leave my precious body alone!” When Otley gets hold of a gun, he tends to point it the wrong way. When the opportunity arises for him to stun a large thug with a heavy object, he merely hands it over meekly instead of taking a risk. When the arch-villain admits his guilt, Otley, who’s supposed to bug him with a miniature tape recorder, gets the mechanics all wrong and winds up with a tape of pop music instead. This wouldn’t happen to Sean Connery, except in real life, and James Bond wouldn’t find his own incompetence even remotely funny. Otley, convinced that someone’s put LSD in his bedtime drink and that none of his adventures is really happening, soldiers on regardless. He doesn’t nail the numero uno baddy, who gets a knighthood (and a premature retirement) instead, he doesn’t get more than an unexpected quickie, on her terms, with the beautiful spy (Romy Schneider), and he doesn’t get much in the way of material reward, but he doesn’t care. The film closes with him reunited with an old girlfriend, who’s not only good in the sack but also, even more importantly, makes a terrific bacon sandwich.

Clement and his usual scripting partner, Ian La Frenais, not only have a keen eye for this sort of comic-but-realistic perspective, but also a fine ear for the way ordinary people talk, even in the most bizarre circumstances. Chased by bad guys, Otley bumps into a buddy who chastises him for not playing in a local football match, and instead of plunging on, Otley pauses to commiserate over the score, 10-1 (“I was missed, then,” he says). Meeting Schneider at a party where neither seems to know anyone much, he spots her as a stranger because she’s reading LP sleeve-notes (“I know the notes on West Side Story off by heart,” he chivalrously asserts); in the same scene we hear a trendy artist telling a girl that “of course, it’s legal in Morocco, but then, they don’t have television over there,” and Clement doesn’t bother to tell us just what “it” is. Involved in a hectic Bullitt-style car chase whilst taking his driving test (a superb comic notion), Otley mutters “Why won’t the bastards just leave me alone?” and his examiner, not knowing what the hell’s going on, but determined to lose neither face nor cool no matter what this lunatic does, stoutly temporizes, “We’ve all got our jobs to do, Mr. Otley….”

One reason why the humor sticks is that Otley is not only realistic in himself and the inhabitant of a realistic everyday milieu, but involved in realistic nastinesses and disappointments. The public-school villains, sipping brandies in the quiet lounge bar of Otley’s local pub whilst Otley himself gulps down Guinness in the noisy public bar, are indistinguishable from the armies of bowler-hatted nine-to-fivers one can glimpse any day of the week on London trains. When one of them gets his head crushed, Alphaville-style, under a huge coach, one hears a sickening crunch, just as the death of a hired assassin (via a bomb concealed in a suitcase) has a genuine horror: the blackmail money which the victim had thought to be the case’s only contents swirls away down a deserted railway line, a poetic image of frustrated greed. Equally, no one is much surprised when Schneider’s sexy continental pussycat, eventually revealed as one of the good guys after all, answers Otley’s timid suggestion of a date after the adventures are over merely with a murmured “Don’t be silly, love….” It’s only in the dreamworld of the movies that a scruff like Otley could impress a glamour girl as sleek as Romy.

Clement’s mise-en-scene abounds in nice invention. Led by the doomed hit man to a deserted railway station, Otley enters this “valley of death” walking past a poster for The Charge of the Light Brigade; seeking to hide in the midst of a crowd of West Indians, Otley is “imprisoned” between the two poles of a placard which, as a swift pan upwards reveals, reads “Incinerate White Trash!” It’s all the more sad, then, that Clement should have not merely gone the way of virtually all the other promising directorial talents unearthed by the British cinema in the last ten years (towards unemployment), but should have seemingly let his directing talent shrivel before doing so. Otley remains lovely, but its fans need not waste much time on Clement’s two subsequent movies, A Severed Head (1970) and Catch Me a Spy (1971). Both these are rather plainly assignments, and it’s reasonable to assume that Clement was none too keen on having to accept, at the outset, either (in the first instance) a pre-existent screenplay by Frederic Raphael – La Frenais is furtively listed as “production associate” – or (in the second) the presences of Kirk Douglas and Marlène Jobert, cast as, respectively, a Bulgarian waiter and a London schoolmistress. Even so, his own contribution to each seems decidedly listless, although A Severed Head may offer the most casual treatment of incest in all cinema, not excluding Louis Malle’s overpraised Le souffle au coeur.

Since when, it would appear, Clement has given up directing altogether. He got his start directing his and La Frenais’s TV scripts, but although they have reconquered TV anew, notably with a BBC sitcom called Porridge, on the tricky theme of surviving in jail, Clement has left the directing to others. The other Clement – La Frenais movie scripts have been also variable: that for The Jokers is sprightly (although the visual style of director Michael Winner is characteristically ugly, all pointless zooms and meat-cleaver cutting), but that for Michael Tuchner’s gangster thriller Villain (where Richard Burton essays one of the British cinema’s more peculiar cockney accents) is really pretty bad. Like Stephen Frears, Clive Donner, John Mackenzie and too many others, Clement must, it seems, be regarded as another good man gone down the drain as far as the movies are concerned. Or, as Otley’s theme song so aptly puts it, he’s got homeless bones.

© 1978 Pierre Greenfield

2010 Afterword: In the seven years following the original publication of this piece, Dick Clement directed three minor films: Porridge (1979), a cheap spinoff from his TV series (which he hadn’t directed for the small screen); Bullshot (1983); and Water (1985). None was a great success and I find I can remember almost nothing about them. He and Ian La Frenais continued scriptwriting for other directors and hit TV gold in the ’80s with a series called Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, which deservedly gained classic status in Britain and was revived successfully in quite recent times. In the cinema, Sean Connery hired them for uncredited rewrites on both Never Say Never Again and The Rock; they also wrote The Commitments for Alan Parker, a big hit which I personally didn’t like much. I still much prefer Otley, but I fear it’s a stand-alone sort of success – and there are far too many of those in the British cinema.

OTLEY (1969)
Direction: Dick Clement. Screenplay: Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, after the novel by Martin Waddell. Cinematography: Austin Dempster. Editing: Richard Best. Music: Stanley Myers; song: Don Partridge. Production Design: Carmen Dillon. Production: Bruce Cohn Curtis.
The players: Tom Courtenay, Romy Schneider, Alan Badel, James Villiers, Leonard Rossiter, Freddie Jones, James Maxwell, Fiona Lewis, James Bolam, Barry Fantoni, Edward Hardwicke, Phyllida Law, Geoffrey Bayldon, James Cossins, Damian Harris, Ronald Lacey, Frank Middlemass, Maureen Toal, Robert Brownjohn.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


Leave a Reply