Posted in: by Peter Richards, Contributors, Directors, Essays

The Donner Impasse

The announcement of Clive Donner’s death in September, 2010, reminded film buffs of a certain age of some good film-making and some good times, but chiefly it made one reflect anew on just how fleeting glory can be in the movie business. Clive Donner’s directing career lasted from the late 1950s into the 1990s, but it was essentially confined to just seven years in the 1960s; once the Swinging London decade was over, it was downhill all the way for him. The fates conspired, and fortune did not smile. It’s a sad story.

Clive Donner

Born in 1926, Donner got into the film business as a teenager, partially through the good offices of Michael Powell. He assisted in the cutting-rooms on some of the bigger British movies of the half-decade following the war, including a couple made by David Lean; he was a clever young fellow, and he became an editor in his own right very quickly. His credits as cutter include a few widely-remarked films (Genevieve, I Am A Camera) and he achieved his ambition to direct at age 30 with a small thriller called The Secret Place, following it quickly in 1957 with a 76-minute movie about mistreated children, Heart Of A Child. At the start of the 60s, he did two one-hour B-pictures derived from Edgar Wallace (Marriage Of Convenience and The Sinister Man), some TV segments, commercials and training films, and in 1962 had a breakthrough of sorts with a movie called Some People. This film was openly intended as propaganda for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme to help young people and let them find a sense of self-worth. It couldn’t have seemed too promising, but Donner and his screenwriter, John Eldridge, made something of it, critics remarked on its freshness and originality, and he was on his way.

His next film was little-seen and dirt-cheap (it cost just £30,000), but it had formidable intellectual credentials—it was the film version of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, with Donald Pleasence (Donner’s adult lead in Heart Of A Child) repeating the role that had made him a star on stage in both Britain and America. Robert Shaw and Alan Bates were the only other cast members, and the cameraman was a chap named Nicolas Roeg. There was a certain sense of the momentous about the film, and it was a bit more than a straight transcript of a distinguished original. Cheap as it was, it probably lost money, but no-one did badly out of it, career-wise—it was clear that those involved would go on to bigger things in very short order. Donner’s next film, indeed, followed it into British cinemas in only a few weeks, and Alan Bates and Nicolas Roeg rejoined him for it (as did designer Reece Pemberton, composer Ron Grainer and editor Fergus McDonnell). This was to be not just Donner’s best film so far, the breakout movie he had been working towards for some years, it was his best ever. It seemed like the start of a great period, but it was its end. He would never come near to equaling it.

Nothing But The Best is adapted from an American short story by Stanley Ellin entitled The Best Of Everything (a title pre-empted by a dumb Fox weepie of 1959, directed by Jean Negulesco) and the script is by Frederic Raphael. (It’s not, in fact, Raphael’s first screenplay credit, as he has sometimes claimed it to be.) The film opened in Britain in the Spring of 1964, following the Profumo affair by just a few months, about eighteen months after the first Beatles record, and half a year before the third James Bond movie and the general election which ousted the Tories after thirteen years. It was, to riot in understatement, a time of vast changes in Britain, changes which would have their effects around the world. And Nothing But The Best, whilst not the big box-office success its makers had confidently expected, was perfectly attuned to this period when anything went (or might go at any time), this new age of tremendous—and perhaps terrible—possibilities.

One of the things which went, indeed, was the usually sacrosanct notion that the good guys win in the end. There isn’t a good guy in Nothing But The Best, not in any of the key roles, at least, but nor is the film another British movie about a social malcontent, like Richard Burton in Look Back In Anger or Albert Finney in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning. No, Jimmy Brewster (Bates) is something new amongst class-war warriors, if, indeed, he can be so described. Jimmy begins the film by telling us “it’s a rotten, stinking world”, but he’s not embittered by this fact like the aforementioned, for he then cheerfully adds, “…but there are some smashing things in it – and I want them!” And he’ll do absolutely anything to get them. Formidably glossy as it is (and Andrew Sarris would compare Donner’s visual style to Vincente Minnelli’s), Nothing But The Best is sharper than a dozen razors. It’s a comedy with a murderer for a hero, and, unlike the homicidal Louis of Kind Hearts And Coronets, he’s given no get-out clauses. The inescapable suggestion is that the glamorous world he aspires to, and the society he moves in, is a world of killers.

Confident and cunning, Jimmy knows full well that he’ll stay on the bottom rung of the ladder at Horton’s, an exclusive firm of property dealers, until he can obliterate all trace of his actual background. Not that he’s aggressively proletarian—his elderly parents might be called “comfortable” and they’re proud that he’s successfully eliminated every last trace of the streets from his accent. Jimmy has a good general idea of how to emulate the right manner, and he can charm those few customers who take any notice of him whilst looking for his superiors, but the finer points of classism elude him. But he’s lucky. Now, it might seem on paper that Jimmy’s luck is too often the sort of convenient contrivance of which screenwriter Raphael is far too fond—later screenplays, like the Oscar-winning Darling or Two For The Road, depend on unlikely coincidences, chance encounters and contrived meet-cutes of the sort an intellectual fellow like Raphael might despise in others. But Donner works hard and subtly throughout the film to give every script over-simplification an interior logic.

Hence, when we see Jimmy pushing the office switchboard girl into a puddle and pretending that a passing sports-car has splashed her (a stratagem undertaken for no reason more complex than lust), this first example of Jimmy’s luck gets a sardonic reverberation much later in the film when we see Jimmy’s ultimate sexual goal—the boss’s daughter, Ann (Millicent Martin)—driving an almost identical vehicle. (The more usual symbolic overtones are also involved, as Jimmy’s cadging of a lift from Ann leads eventually to seduction.) Similarly, Donner is able to place Jimmy’s parents so exactly by the Royalist/Empire Loyalist trappings of their suburban home that their extremely handy decision to emigrate to Australia, where Jimmy has a brother doing well, is no longer a mere Raphaelite ploy to get rid of them—they’re exactly the sort of old couple who would feel out of place in the changing 60s, who would hare off to the sunny, reactionary Oz of popular legend for their declining years.

Alan Bates in ‘Nothing But the Best’

The supreme example of Jimmy’s luck is nothing less than a deus (or is it diabolus?) ex machina, a seedy cad named Charlie Prince (Denholm Elliott in a career-defining role), who happens to sit next to Jimmy in a cafe, happens to strike up a conversation and happens to be an ex-employee of Horton’s—”Let’s just say that a big black cloud came into the office one day and I walked out under it.” Prior to this reversal, Charlie was everything Jimmy needs to seem—or be. After minimal persuasion, Charlie agrees to a teacher-pupil relationship and moves into Jimmy’s lodgings. His lessons on how to become an upper-class success are devastatingly suitable, and Jimmy is soon rewriting his own past for Ann’s (and her father’s) benefit. His suburban education turns into a Cambridge history course (“Cambridge history students are never required to know any actual history – only the first names of well-known historians”); his newly-departed parents become imaginary war dead (“Buzz-bomb – ’44”, Jimmy mutters darkly, parodying the stiff upper lip); and his attitudes become, as directed by Charlie, fixed. The French? “Unreliable – let us down in 1940.” Americans? “Unreliable – let us down over Suez.” Negroes? “Very fine cricketers—some of them.” Royalty? “Too bloody middle-class by half.” Gradually, Jimmy’s ambition seems eerily fulfilled—he seems to become a suaver, younger, more personable version of Charlie, much as Why seems to turn into Frederique in Chabrol’s Les Biches, and as he goes from strength to strength, so Charlie weakens and flags, his very life seeming vampirically drained. Dishevelled and coarse now, Charlie recommends against betting on a horse by the name of (appropriately) Doppelganger, and when Jimmy, for the first time, ignores his advice, the nag romps home. It’s time for Charlie to go.

And go he does. To get nothing but the best, you must be prepared to kill and a real success can get away with murder. Charlie is throttled (with his Old Etonian tie) and stuffed into his huge trunk and hidden in the cellar—and when Mrs. March, the landlady, finds the stiff, Jimmy’s luck holds true once more, for he now resorts to his sexual prowess, which Mrs. March has been visibly lusting after throughout the film. She willingly becomes his co-conspirator (she hated Charlie); Jimmy gets a junior partnership; Ann accepts his proposal; and a big church wedding is arranged. Jimmy insists on it (Ann would prefer something quiet), because this is his moment of glory and he wants to show off to all his ex-pals, still stuck at the bottom as they always will be. And it’s this vulgar egotism that shows him to be Not Our Class, Dear, after all—because, as a result of his insistence, the Hortons feel they have to invite their other child, the hitherto-unmentioned scapegrace son—Charlie. “I always called him Bonnie Prince Charlie,” his mother wistfully murmurs—and the younger-still pretender is almost scuppered by the prince’s aristocratic shade. Being unaccountably absent from his most recent address, Charlie is represented at the Horton’s home by his effects – that trunk. This was the end of Stanley Ellin’s story, but Donner’s film has one more savage twist. The corpse is gone—buried by Mrs. March, who herself now decamps for Africa. Ann Horton guesses the truth—like everyone in the world into which Jimmy has breezed, she has the killer instinct herself—but simply gives her resourceful spouse a sweet smile. You’re either quick or dead, and no-one liked a loser like Charlie anyway. Happy end.

In the era of “You’ve never had it so good”, the film had especial point. But it was also highly prescient – one can easily imagine a sequel where Jimmy is a Thatcherite Member of Parliament. The moral crevasse of the 1970s seems all too near in this film, which, if it sums up its time perfectly, also has the timelessness of art. Donner’s direction is rock-firm, never making the mistake of exploiting what the film’s attacking (as other Raphael scripts do, Darling being the most blatant example). The visuals constantly strengthen and expand on the dialogue. When upwardly-moving Jimmy’s taxi passes, first, the Houses of Parliament and then the Economist building, the imagery not only yokes together power and money but also hints that Jimmy’s ambition will know no limits. When Jimmy strangles Charles whilst the latter shaves, the splash of soap-suds on the mirror seems like a peculiarly horrid death-spasm ejaculation, the shrewdest of all the film’s visual links between potency and perversion. Donner’s mise-en-scène never simply follows the script and never panders to it. Each idea is instead reinforced visually and thus tightened and improved.

Suddenly, Donner was a name. And yet, thereafter, bafflingly and heartbreakingly, his career in movies seemed to follow a steep downhill path, involving not only inferior subjects but a seeming abdication of responsibilities. This was not immediately apparent, for Donner’s next film, whilst indifferently reviewed (save by the very enthusiastic Andrew Sarris), was a terrific box-office success, and, indeed, was for a while, in the frantic mid-60s, the most lucrative comedy film ever made. What’s New, Pussycat? (1965) is such amiable fun, so affable in its view of human foibles, that one feels rather a heel pointing out that it’s also a truly shameless mess, opening breathtaking new vistas of self-indulgence in a decade which had already extended those frontiers altogether too much. It’s sometimes extremely funny, but also very noisy and trades excessively on the goodwill its best sequences incline us to be willing to extend. What’s missing, simply, is the thing Donner’s previous film had had in splendid abundance—directorial control.

Peter O’Toole and Romy Schneider in ‘What’s New Pussycat’

Donner never creates a coherent universe for his characters to inhabit—nor, more damningly, a coherently incoherent one. Michael (Peter O’Toole) is a Paris-based journalist surrounded by beautiful birds all day at his magazine HQ, and he loves it. But he also hates it, because he’s in love with a marvelous girl, Carol (Romy Schneider), and she’s fast running out of patience with his perpetual straying and wants to get married. Michael, of course, wants to avoid that, and, desperate because he feels guilty and randy in equal proportions, he elects to spill out his problems to a psychiatrist—a sex-crazed oddball named Fassbender (Peter Sellers) who, whilst married to a Wagnerian diva, is in love with another patient, a nymphomaniac named Renée (Capucine), who takes to pursuing Michael at the same time that he falls in with Liz (Paula Prentiss), a stripper given to writing idiotic beat poetry and knocking back barbiturate overdoses whenever there are enough people around to save her. Got it? Ah, but this isn’t the subject for just one movie, at least, as Donner directs it, it isn’t. The screwball romantic comedy involving real people Michael and Carol is quite at odds with the freewheeling surrealist farce involving Fassbender, Liz and Renée, who are uncomplicatedly presented as cartoons. It may have been the plan of tyro screenwriter Woody Allen to make them co-exist—and to make himself the liaison officer between these two obstinately separate worlds in the role of O’Toole’s best friend—but it doesn’t work.

Indeed, Allen’s persona as writer is only directly apparent in those scenes in which he himself appears. He plays one Victor Shakapopolous (who would reappear in the Giant Tit episode of Allen’s own Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask), a character who is both the crazy joker of Allen’s earliest self-directed movies and the lovelorn loner of later ones. He gets some very Woody Allenish jokes—inviting a girl to a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition with the added come-on, “He’s one of my favourite small people,” or answering a comment about what the pay’s like at the strip club where he works (“Twenty francs a week—not much!”) with a casual, “It’s all I can afford.” And we may assume the plot, such as it is, is his own devising; Michael’s struggle to reconcile the male-chauvinist and poetic-romantic sides to his own nature is one shared by many later Allen protagonists, profoundly in Manhattan. But in 1965, Woody Allen was only just getting famous, he wasn’t a movie star, he hadn’t directed—and he got trampled. (See Eric Lax’s Woody Allen And His Comedy for gruesome details.) Most of the film, as others have also testified, was improvised from day to day. It shows. Peter Sellers’s fondness for extempore comedy is much in evidence, but it must be said that, here as elsewhere, his improvs are pretty stale (old Goon Show riffs revamped), with no strong directorial hand, such as he always needed, to restrain him. Sellers has no interest in making the awful Dr. Fassbender human, and Donner seems to lose interest in him because of this. Director and star never seem to meet, and it’s to the movie’s detriment. For Donner does have a considerable interest in the Michael-and-Carol side of the plot, and his insistence to interviewers from Movie that the film was “highly moral” is entirely justifiable from this aspect. Donner’s skill with actors has to do with nuances of character, not the delineation of archetypes, and whilst he just leaves Sellers to get on with things (with the result that he’s sometimes funny and just as often not), he devotes a lot of attention to O’Toole and Schneider, who (despite what reviewers said at the time) give easily the best and most rounded performances in the film. Their tender rapport—the interaction of two very bright, affectionate, caring young people who like as well as love each other—is very charming and moving, and Donner’s treatment of it is very alert. When Michael hammers on Carol’s door with a flowerpot and is then genuinely surprised when it shatters in his hand, it’s all the funnier because Donner directs the scene, not to this comic point, but to a more human one, an illustration of this peacock male’s undisguised frailty in the presence of acknowledged love. When Michael, suddenly very verbose, proposes to Carol, the words “Author’s Message” may twitch in large art-deco lettering in the top left-hand corner of the screen, but what he has to say about meaningful relationships is nevertheless pretty sensible.

So why couldn’t Donner have made the whole film about these two very pleasant people instead of relegating them to the sidelines every so often whilst the other leads scream and run around and wave their arms (now and then, but not consistently, to amusing effect)? The disjunction between reality and cartoon, between getting to the essence of a comic subject and deftly avoiding it in the sacred name of Getting A Laugh, becomes even more pronounced, and vastly more distressing, in Donner’s next film, the U.S.-made Luv, a loose version of Murray Schisgal’s hit play. The gimmick of this three-character piece was that the whole of it takes place on a suspension bridge; Donner’s film, adapted by Elliott Baker, plays things safer, only opening and closing on one. The titular mis-spelling is appropriate, for though Harry (Jack Lemmon), Milt (Peter Falk), and Ellen (Elaine May) talk endlessly about love—how they yearn for it, how they respond to it, how their lives are forever blighted without it—they have no real concept of it, beyond an obsessive love of self, which isn’t based on any kind of self-awareness. Another scathing satire? Another surreal cartoon? A moving, desperate comedy of all-too-real manners? The damnable thing is, Luv could be any of these things, tries to be all of them and ends up falling headlong between all available stools to become, finally, none of them. It’s very nearly very funny. It’s also, even more nearly, a total disaster.

Mainly, it hovers. Some of it’s hilarious, thanks mainly to Schisgal’s (or Baker’s) dialogue but also partly to Donner’s unobtrusive visual style —we know all about the marital discord between May and Falk when we have to look at the hideous plate of spaghetti she serves him for supper. The delicate Freudianism of her seduction of best friend Lemmon is made funnier by batty romantic imagery—in a funfair’s Tunnel of Love, she delicately places his hand on her breast and he immediately bursts into operatic romantic song. Alas, a lot of the film is terrible, too—especially in the second half when something like a plot seems to be rearing its head. Though May is consistently, glumly funny, Lemmon and Falk take fright and, hither and yon, mug most horribly. Falk pulls faces, Lemmon does facial tics, and hitherto unsuspected impotence is introduced merely to propel the narrative forward. Finally, having manoeuvred everyone back onto the suspension-bridge, Donner runs out of ideas and has them all fall in the water to end the film, with none of the issues raised by the script resolved or even properly met.

And this degradation of directorial gifts gets worse in Donner’s fast-following next film, Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, a British film actually released in the UK ahead of Luv, which was a box-office catastrophe. Based on Hunter Davies’s novel, Mulberry Bush is about a 17-year-old schoolboy who chases girls, indulges in erotic fantasy, suffers the standard pangs of sexual deprivation and generally has the same sort of life most 17-year-olds did in the Britain of 1968; his story ends, as all films and few real-life stories of this type do, by his getting laid and beginning to apprise the nature of True Love. A little romantic disillusionment proves only momentarily trying and young Jamie (Barry Evans) faces with equanimity the prospect of leaving home and going out into the big world (well, Manchester University, anyway) at the fade-out. Donner packaged the story with new faces, lots of noisy pop music on the soundtrack, and unending psychedelic colour effects, the sort of gimmickry he’d had no need of when he made Nothing But The Best. It was with-it, it was trendy, it was gear and fab and all the other pimply hyperboles, and all this new-style film-making wrecked it as personal cinema—or as entertainment.

Barry Evans, Judy Geeson, and friends in ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’

A Beatle-age bildungsroman ought to derive its modernity from accurate observation, not from spurious, second-hand, chucked-in visual clichés, and once one separates Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush from its DayGlo imagery, its fondness for having characters talking to the camera to comment on scenes even whilst appearing in them, its elephantine parodies of what the general public is supposed to think silent films were like, its brief, discreet displays of nudity and its flash-insert cutting tricks borrowed from better films, all one is left with is a dumb and rather nasty sort of plot, thin, dated and markedly sexist. After numerous attempts to lose his virginity at several social levels (which allows some unpleasant caricatures—the working-class girl is too brutishly common, the middle-class one is too primly religious, and the upper-crust one so decadent she collapses in a drunken stupor just that fatal moment too early), Jamie finally Does It with a nymphomaniacal type of notable vapidity  – so we won’t think badly of him when he promptly ditches her. Now that he’s A Man, he can finally not just pursue the beautiful girl of his dreams, but get her, too—but the dreamgirl turns out to be a slut, Jamie is thrown over (but only after bedding her), and we are supposed think him a sadder, but a wiser man. But, of course, he can now carry on screwing everything in skirts, just like a proper Swinging London movie hero.

Not only that, but he passes his school finals and gets his college place, whilst the dreamgirl, too keen on sex to do any studying, fails. A thoroughly hypocritical and middle-aged “morality” has been grafted onto the younger generation, and hedged bets on Donner’s part are the order of the day. Lest older filmgoers be alarmed by the doings the young, his teenyboppers are played by actors clearly way past school age (Evans was 24). Sympathy is extended to no-one, but nor is there any real criticism of anyone—just snickering at the grown-ups, who are treated with bland contempt (Jamie’s mother is presented as crazy simply because she reads Dickens and Dostoyevsky at the breakfast-table) whilst the young are merely exploited. The film never pauses to consider, much less rebuke, Jamie’s self-centredness, and the notion that each not-quite-sexual encounter should prepare him for the onrush of adulthood is soon forgotten. His actual loss of innocence is in no way meaningful either to him or to us. For Donner’s fans, the most crushing of all the film’s failing is the appalling waste of Denholm Elliott, repaid for his brilliance in Nothing But The Best with a brief, lousy role as a crassly phoney wine-snob.

Andrew Sarris, Donner’s most vociferous American admirer, attacked the film for its “mod mushiness” (indeed, its elaborate psychedelia was entirely unnecessary), but his fears for the director’s future could hardly have prepared him for Donner’s next film, one of the most bizarre (and least typical) disasters of the entire decade. Alfred The Great (1969) proved so peculiarly feeble that one really wondered how on earth it could have been greenlighted, even by the front-office of so unlucky and ailing a studio as MGM. The dialogue, credited to James R.Webb and Ken Taylor, contains lines that Cecil B. De Mille at his most Victorian would have rejected. “You are ignorant and proud and give me guts-ache!” cries King Alfred (David Hemmings) to his bride (Prunella Ransome), who, when later resisting rape by a barbarian Dane (Michael York), receives from her seducer a familiar-sounding compliment, “How beautiful you are in anger!” The best of actors—the cast also includes Ian McKellen, Colin Blakely, Peter Vaughan, Vivien Merchant, Julian Glover, Alan Dobie and Sinead Cusack—would be hard put to cope with dialogue like that, the subtlest of visual styles—and Donner and cameraman Alex Thomson find some striking images—might not provide adequate compensation. Characterisation is clichéd (King Alfred wants to become a monk, not out of piety, but to control his rampaging bloodlust—and, yes, he’s also got big sex problems), action is sometimes ridiculous (when, at the start, a swineherd spots the Danish army landing a few hundred yards away, he, instead of running like hell, rushes down to fight them all on his own, and is understandably killed); one can praise the battle-scenes, arranged by veteran stunt expert Paul Stader, and the refusal of production designer Michael Stringer to make his sets look anything but small, austere and functional, but there’s incredibly little else. The film cost and lost millions at exactly the wrong moment in British film history. Having made seven films in as many years, Donner now had to wait a full half-decade for his next job.

It wasn’t worth it. Vampira cast David Niven as Dracula—indeed, when the film got a long-delayed release in America, it was renamed Old Dracula in the wake of Young Frankenstein, a wheeze that failed as miserably as it deserved to. It was not only not funny, but even rather dubious. Donner now simply had to find work elsewhere, directing a few plays and a lot of television. It was in the latter sphere that he staged a rather remarkable, if short-lasting, recovery. In 1976, the BBC reunited him with both the screenwriter of his best film, Frederic Raphael, and the leading man of his last hit, Peter O’Toole, for a television movie based on Geoffrey Household’s classic pre-war thriller, Rogue Male. It was a free adaptation—though not as free as Fritz Lang’s 1941 movie from the same source,  Man Hunt – and a splendid one. As with the Lang film, the target of the famous big-game hunter played by O’Toole is overtly identified as Adolf Hitler (in the novel, it’s an unnamed dictator); failing to kill him (in revenge for the murder of his Jewish fiancée), the hunter (actually surnamed “Hunter” in this version—he, too, is nameless in the book) suffers torture, but escapes, flees Germany and gets back to England to learn that a Nazi assassin, who calls himself “Major Quive-Smith” (John Standing inherits the old George Sanders part) is still on his trail. The hunter “goes to earth”—quite literally, he hides in a tunnel he’s dug for himself in rural Devon—and finally overcomes his enemy with a home-made bow and arrow, whereupon the declaration of war prevents any awkward enquiries on the part of the authorities.

Peter O’Toole in ‘Rogue Male’

Donner and Raphael make this “rattling good yarn” a bit more than a thriller, presenting as its hero a man who must come to know how sheltered, how privileged his world has been—just as the British must come to appreciate the true value of their freedoms in a world where these are being denied to millions. Where George Sanders’s Major was a German spy with an uncanny ability to pass himself off as an Englishman, the Quive-Smith of this version actually is English, a fascistic militarist who thinks that all this democracy has sent England to the dogs. He’s a monster, but his attitude’s not all that far from the class-born-to-rule mentality which has governed Sir Robert Hunter’s life until now. The suspense quota is high, the visual imagination sharp (Hunter’s bullet misses Hitler, but puts a hole in a large samovar, which “bleeds” tea all over a damask tablecloth), the acting (which includes Alastair Sim in his final role) is fine. For the first time in too long, we were reminded of Donner’s skill, and it was exhilarating. The BBC got him to direct two more lavish versions of between-the-wars fictions, both produced, as Rogue Male had been, by Mark Shivas, a former film critic who had been (in the pages of the maverick British magazine Movie) one of Donner’s keenest fans.

The Three Hostages (1977), based on the 1924 John Buchan novel (Alfred Hitchcock had planned a movie version only a few years before, but gave up on it), and She Fell Among Thieves (1978), adapted by Tom Sharpe from the now-forgotten writer Dornford Yates, fell below the high standards of Rogue Male, being merely campy period nostalgia, nicely arranged. (Interestingly, The Three Hostages made no attempt to hide Buchan’s reactionary attitudes, although his racist language was fortunately elided). Thereafter, American TV hired Donner for a variety of efforts, mostly done in Britain, including new versions of The Thief Of Baghdad and The Scarlet Pimpernel and a couple of Dickens adaptations with George C. Scott—Oliver Twist in 1982 and the well-liked A Christmas Carol a year later. He also returned to the cinema, but with a couple of dire items done in the US at the start of the 80s—The Nude Bomb, inspired by the old Get Smart TV show, and Charlie Chan And The Curse Of The Dragon Queen, perhaps occasioned by the success its star, Peter Ustinov, had had playing Hercule Poirot. Ustinov’s impersonation of the Chinese supersleuth won no huzzas (but there were accusations of racism) and the screen debut of a pretty girl named Michelle Pfeiffer went unnoticed. Donner did one last cinema film, in 1988, a film about Abelard and Heloise (of all things!) called Stealing Heaven, with little-known leads (Derek de Lint and Kim Thomson) and Denholm Elliott as a monk. It was yet another flop. The present writer has never seen it, nor his final directing credit, which would appear to have been on a grand scale—a Franco-Italo-German mini-series in three parts, Charlemagne (1993), with actors from all over, including Frank Finlay, Helmut Griem, Paolo Bonacelli, Sergio Fantoni and Cris Campion, and, in the title-role, Christian Brendel. One wouldn’t have thought that Alfred The Great and Stealing Heaven automatically made Donner the go-to guy for such ventures, but let’s not pre-judge—has anyone out there seen it?

After this, nothing. It used to be said of the British cinema that it had no auteurs, but the truth is, more precisely, that it has had very few producers. Simply put, in the long history of the British film industry, there’s been damn little industry; the front office boys have historically provided little context for artists to create in. Consequently, strong directors have found it difficult or impossible to have any kind of career continuity unless they can get a foothold in another country. Again and again, and rather more frequently and speedily than in other lands, maverick British talents have come to the fore only to be faced with terrible disappointments and frustrations, to be saddled with routine assignments whilst failing to make personal projects, to be sidelined into other fields simply to pay the bills. One thinks of Seth Holt, of Robert Hamer, even of the more durable, longer-lasting Alexander Mackendrick—clearly brilliant filmmakers whose filmographies are far smaller than one would expect (and, even then, too often compromised), whose unachieved projects are all too numerous, whose personal stories are sometimes deeply sad. Clive Donner kept working and had a longer career than any of them, yet, of these four, his achievements are arguably the least. But his best work is so stimulating that his failures make one more sad than angry. Aside from his one work of real brilliance, one finds a handful of other enjoyable achievements on a smaller scale and many good moments; in a long career, this may not seem much. All the same, we should be far more grateful than dismissive. Donner’s best work is ripe for rediscovery.

Copyright © 2012 Peter Richards