Week 51: Hero – Barack Obama

by Jackie_South on December 21, 2014

US_HeroThis week, Barack Obama receives our Hero of the Week award

2014 has hardly been a vintage year for President Obama: last month saw one of the worst Democrat performances since the Second World War in the mid-term congressional elections.

Eight years ago, George W Bush had a similarly calamitous set of mid-term election results: then the Republicans lost control of both houses for the first time since 1994. His last two ‘lame duck’ years in the presidency were chastened ones: ditching Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary, railing back on the aggressiveness of foreign policy and having little control on domestic policy.

The Democrats have so far acted very differently. Last week, the Senate won our Hero of the Week award for using the last gasps of Democrat control to release the damning Intelligence Committee report into the use of torture by the CIA. This week, the President wins the same award for his historic announcement of a diplomatic thawing in relations with Cuba, and for taking a stand against both the behaviour of North Korea and Hollywood’s lack of a backbone in response.

I’ll leave the comments on the actions of Kim Jong-Un and Sony to others, but we should not underestimate the significance of the first.

The US embargo on trade with Cuba has lasted fifty-four years – initially put in place by the Eisenhower regime in October 1960. Since then, Congress has agreed no less than five subsequent pieces of legislation to extend the scope of the embargo or to strengthen the penalties: trade now carries a ten-year sentence. The most recent three have all been since the UN started to annually condemn the impact of the sanctions 22 years ago. The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 includes action to punish non-US companies that trade with the island.

Obama’s announcement this week not only sets out to re-establish diplomatic relations, but also to loosen the economic sanctions. As a ‘lame duck’, one advantage is that he no longer needs to pander to the anti-Castro zealotry of Cubans in Florida: there is no longer a political price for him to pay in that key swing state.

This is just the start of a long journey of normalisation of relations between these neighbours, and it is long overdue. But it should be welcomed wholeheartedly nonetheless.

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Richard Hannay: ‘Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen, it sounds like a spy story’

Annabelle ‘Smith’: ‘That’s exactly what it is’

A few weeks ago I went to a talk at the wonderful Barts Pathology Museum (sadly not open to the public, but accessible if you attend an event there) entitled Hitchcock’s London by Dr Mark Glancy.   As well as a biographical guide to the various parts of London that Hitch has connections with, Dr Glancy examined how Hitchcock’s films portray London and Londoners.

Glancy’s thesis was that in Hitchcock’s British films (before his departure for Hollywood in 1940) the London portrayed was one that reflected the director’s own lower middle class background (Hitchcock’s father owned a grocery shop), suspicious of the rich and powerful.   Later, the London portrayed by Hitchcock in his American films would be an upper middle class one, with working class Londoners portrayed as criminals or ciphers. This would change with Hitchcock’s last London-set film, the truly disturbing Frenzy (1972) in which he returned to the class milieu of his early British films.

This week’s Cine-East Film Club Presentation is inspired by that fascinating talk. It also makes Alfred Hitchcock the first director to have had three of his films presented, hardly surprising given he probably is the most consistently brilliant director of all time.

The 39 Steps, very loosely based on the 1915 John Buchan novel of the same name (well strictly speaking the novel is The Thirty Nine Steps), actually has very little of London in it. However, that which it does, in book-ended musical hall scenes at the beginning and end are interesting when considering Glancy’s thesis, but more about that later.

The 39 Steps is one of five films that Hitchcock made in the mid-late 1930s about secret agents and espionage. These films capture the growing sense of threat in Britain from Nazi Germany and the increasing sense that the nation’s security was at threat from foreign spies and terrorists in our midst.     At its most terrifying this would manifest itself in an out and out masterpiece that has already featured in the Cine-East Film Club, Sabotage (1936) – a film in which London’s power and transport systems are targeted and in which the bomb plot at its centre isn’t thwarted and in which the main terrorists get away. In some senses The 39 Steps sits next to Sabotage (or the original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), the first of this sequence of films) as say North By North West does to Vertigo in Hitchcock’s peak American period: it is a fun caper-y film rather than a deeply fucked up work of art.

Indeed if you have never seen The 39 Steps, North By North West makes a great reference point (and what a great double bill.) Both films feature suave leading men (Robert Donat and Cary Grant respectively) who find themselves mixed up in a spy plot accidentally but who will ultimately prove to be the heroes who save the day.   Further both films feature key sequences at iconic landmarks: the Forth Bridge in the case of The 39 Steps, Mount Rushmore in North By North West.

Yet if The 39 Steps is a fun film (one in which you never really believe that the hero, Richard Hannay, is in any real jeopardy), that is not in any way to diminish how great it is.   Part of the joy of it is how Hannay, who has been dragged into the whole thing for no other reason than he happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, brushes pretty much everything he encounters off with total insouciance.   Even though he spends 80% of the film wanted for a murder he didn’t commit and running from the both the police and the secret spy organisation (the 39 Steps of the title) he tries to expose for planning to take a top air defence secret out of the country, he takes it all completely in his stride.

In truth the quest to find the 39 Steps and their leader with the distinctive missing top joint of one of his little fingers, Professor Jordan (a brilliantly patrician Geoffrey Tearle) and to unravel the secret of the 39 Steps, is the quintessential Hitchcockian MacGuffin (as coined by the Master of Suspence himself) – a plot device which the film is notionally about, but isn’t really. Although the method by which the secret was stolen – by using music hall act Mr Memory’s prestigious feats of recollection to remember the blueprints (‘the hardest job I’ve ever had’) is ingenious Hitchcock isn’t really interested in how serious the leak is to British security, something that is almost entirely skirted over.

No, what Hitchcock is primarily interested in as the starlingly self-aware (and post-modern some 40 years before the term had even been thought of) quote from the dialogue at the top of this post indicates are the mechanics of the amateur sleuth spy story.   Hannay is glamorous, full of savoir faire, brave and solves the case almost without any official assistance.   By contrast the police are portrayed as clunking fools – allowing Hannay to escape from under their noses when seriously out-numbered twice: once from the Flying Scotsman and once by jumping out of a sheriff’s office window, and not believing Hannay story when he explains it to them.   The thugs from the 39 Steps sent by Jordan to kill Hannay because he knows too much are no brighter.

By his charm Hannay will get both the wife (a young Peggy Ashcroft) of the money-grabbing and severe crofter (played by John Laurie – later Private Frazer in Dad’s Army) and Pamela (Madeliene Carroll), the woman who first gives him up to the police on the Flying Scotsman, to help him.

This has proven to be the model for such films pretty much ever since.

The scenes between Hannay and Pamela pushed the then strict censorship rules to their limits. In particular the scene when having escaped from the clutches of the 39 Steps the pair end up in a guest house, at a time when Pamela still thinks Hannay story is a lie and that he is a murderer.   Hannay tells the guesthouse owners that they are runaway newlyweds. Hitchcock places Hannay and Pamela still hand-cuffed in a bedroom at the guest house.   Pamela’s clothes are wet and she take her stockings off with her hand still handcuffed to Hannay’s with the pregnant thought of what the sleeping arrangements might be hanging over them,   it is sexy, funny and brilliantly played by the two leads.

Which brings us back to London. The film starts in a musical hall. It is not entirely clear where in London it is located but the clientele, Hannay aside, are solidly working class. The musical hall has a bar at the back with pints flowing and is smoky and rowdy. The questions asked of Mr Memory by the audience are primarily about horse racing, football and chickens, including this great exchange:

Boy in audience: What won the Cup in 1926?

Mr. Memory: Cup? Waterloo? Football? Or Tea, Sir?

Boy in audience: Football, silly

Heckler in Audience: When did Chelsea win it?

Mr. Memory: 63BC in the presence of the Emperor Nero!

Hannay lives in Portland Place, in the West End and there is brief scene there. Finally there is the last scene, again at a musical show, but this time in the more salubrious London Palladium theatre, just off of Oxford Street.

Now Glancy’s theory was that Hitchcock was not much interested in the working class, and that his British films with London settings primarily focus on the lower middle class (like Hitchcock himself) whereas the later American films (Fenzy aside) tend to focus on the upper middle classes.   Although there isn’t much by way of the London working class in The 39 Steps, confined as they are to the initial musical scene, they are portrayed sympathetically – they are shown as funny, warm and real, without it coming across simply as caricature. So although the 39 Steps is undoubtedly not about the working class, it does not condescend to them.

The 39 Steps is a great way into the under seen British Hitchcocks in general and his espionage cycle in particular if you haven’t seen it (the 1978 remake is by the way is ok and far closer to the book), and if you have seen it, always worth revisiting.  Its lightness of touch should not detract from the fact that it is a masterpiece (voted 4th best British film of all time by the British Film Institute).

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#968: 1968, The Small Faces, Lazy Sunday

December 19, 2014

Well, as the others haven’t paid tribute it fall to me.   A fortnight or so ago Ian McLagan passed away.    As keyboard player with both The Small Faces and then The Faces, he was part of some of the most iconic music of the 1960s and early 1970s. In more recent years he collaborated with […]

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Lawyering and the Al-Sweady Inquiry

December 19, 2014

There has been much anger in the media this week as a result of the conclusions of the inquiry  set up to investigate accusations that British soldiers had killed and mistreated Iraqi detainees in 2004. The Inquiry, chaired by former High Court judge Sir Thayne Forbes and which heard testimony from more than 300 witnesses, […]

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#967: 2014, Future Islands, Seasons (Waiting on You)

December 17, 2014

The Guardian has just chosen Future Islands, Seasons (Waiting on You) as the best track of 2014. You can see why. This is a truly wonderful song. While the song stands out from the crowd in its own right, the success of the song is largely due to a few outstanding live TV performances which […]

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Let’s Play…. ‘Fantasy Government’

December 16, 2014

As I moaned last week, there is an absolute dearth of talent in politics at the moment: no leaders, no intellects, no fighters, just apologists, slick PR men and con artists. Now, in a way I can’t really complain because I am not a member of any political party, and having had any political ambition […]

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Week 50: Heroes – The Senate Democrats

December 15, 2014

This week, the Democrats on the US Senate Intelligence Committee receive our award for being the greatest heroes of the last seven days As Ray North wrote earlier, this week has seen the revelation of the extent of the CIA’s use of torture in the ‘War on Terror’. But that revelation needed the commitment and […]

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Week 50: Villain – The CIA

December 14, 2014

This Week’s Villain’s are the American Central Intelligence Agency. A lad from my home town was killed in Iraq in 2003 when the helicopter his Commando unit was being deployed in crash landed. He was about 23 years old – a cracking boy, I’d played rugby with him. The whole town turned out for his […]

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Week 50: Prat – Philip Davies MP

December 14, 2014

This week’s Prat of the Week Award goes to the Conservative MP for Shipley, Philip Davies MP for his reaction to the High Court decision finding the prison book ban unlawful The policy that has, perhaps, summed up the sheer petty nastiness of this government more than any other, is Chris Graylng’s ban on the […]

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#966: 2014, The War on Drugs, Under The Pressure

December 11, 2014

We’ve all been there. As we near the end of another stressful year, Ed Miliband has just added to it all by signing up to massive budget cuts. Life gets harder and more miserable for people which ever way you turn. Or, as Adam Granduciel puts it, “Lying in a ditch/ Pissing in the wind/ Lying on my […]

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The Torture State: Time For Some Honesty In The UK Too

December 11, 2014

The revelations in the Senate Report into CIA torture in the Bush years show that however hideous we thought the behaviour of agents of the US State was in the period after 9/11, the truth was a whole lot worse.   The redacted report shows that the torture methods used went beyond the water boarding and […]

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Week 49: Hero – Free To Feed

December 9, 2014

Last Week’s Hero of the Week Award goes (belatedly) to Free to Feed for taking the fight to Claridges What an odd week last week was.  Some battles you kind of think have been won.  Naively I guess.  One of these is the right of a woman to breastfeed her baby wherever she chooses, without […]

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The Allthatsleft Annual General Meeting

December 8, 2014

We’ve just had our annual Allthatsleft meeting. Held at various public houses in Hackney over the course of two nights, the four of us got together (Charlie doesn’t get invited because he went to the wrong University!) and engaged in a weekend that we believe is in keeping with the ethos of our fair website. […]

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Week 49: Prat – Nigel Farage

December 8, 2014

This Week’s Prat – the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage Yep, Nigel Farage, the Prat who keeps on Pratting. It’s all very well saying what you feel and articulating the views of a particular group of people – but, when those views are bollocks and saying what you feel makes you sound like a prat, […]

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Week 49: Villain – George Osborne

December 7, 2014

This week, our panel has bestowed our Villain of the Week award on the Chancellor of the Exchequer This week’s “Autumn Statement” (on a date that many would describe as winter) showed us all once again the black heart of the Coalition. Behind the changes to stamp duty (bizarrely being trumpeted by some Tories as […]

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#965: 1979, Rex Barker and the Ricochets, Jeremy Is Innocent

December 5, 2014

Seemed apposite.

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In Praise of Jeremy Thorpe (read and weep Nick Clegg)

December 5, 2014

Jeremy Thorpe has died aged 85. For those of us of a certain age, he will be forever the bloke in the trilby, who was rather surprisingly acquitted of conspiring to murder a male model by the name of Norman Scott (1-0 to George Carman). But, to simply dismiss Thorpe’s political life as being nothing […]

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#964: 1972, The Rolling Stones, Sweet Virginia

December 4, 2014

Bobby Keys, saxophonist with the Stones since Let It Bleed died on Tuesday. Forty years as one of the less celebrated but absolutely central members of the band. The solo in Brown Sugar might be his most famous moment, but for me it is his part in this fantastic cross between Delta Blues and Stax […]

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‘Ray North is not just a consumer!!!’

December 4, 2014

Let me make one thing absolutely clear and plain – this is not an anti-Christmas post. I am not against Christmas, I am not against the giving and receiving of gifts. Hell, I even quite like shopping – in small doses. But, what I am sick and tired of, is the fact that I, and […]

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George Osborne’s Alternative Autumn Statement

December 3, 2014

Mr Speaker, Four years ago, in the first Autumn Statement of this Parliament, I presented the accounts of an economy in crisis. Today, in the last Autumn Statement of this Parliament, I present a forecast that shows the UK economy is still in crisis. Back then, Britain was on the brink. Today, against a difficult […]

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Cine-East Film Club Presents #60: 1977, Star Wars (George Lucas)

December 3, 2014

‘A long time ago in a galaxy far far away….’ Well, the big viral film news over the last few days has been the release of the first teaser trailer for Star Wars VII, the series re-boot with JJ Abrams in the director’s seat.   Posted on Youtube on Friday, it is currently standing at over […]

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#963: 2014, Father John Misty, Bored in the USA

December 2, 2014

How many people rise and say: “My brain’s so awfully glad to be here for yet another mindless day.” I’ve got all morning to obsessively accrue A small nation of meaningful objects And they’ve got to represent me too By this afternoon, I’ll live in debt By tomorrow, be replaced by children How many people […]

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Farewell To The People’s Gordon

December 2, 2014

So Gordon Brown in standing down as an MP.  It is a bit of a cliché to refer to him (like Richard Nixon) as a Shakespearean figure, but I guess like most clichés the reason it is a such a cliché is that there is a real truth in it.   That political brilliance and dominance […]

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Week 48: Villain – Andrew Mitchell MP

December 1, 2014

Unless you were paying attention carefully you may not have realised that the police officer at the centre of the Plebgate row, Toby Rowland, had never wavered in his version of the events of 19 September 2012.   Andrew Mitchell’s powerful supporters in the media and at Westminster had given every impression that he had been […]

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Week 48: Prat – David Mellor

November 30, 2014

This week, our award for the greatest prat of the last seven days goes to radio host and former Tory Minister, David Mellor Let’s recall those words the Rt Hon David Mellor treated his taxi driver to: “You sweaty, stupid little shit” “Who are you to question me? I don’t want to hear from you, […]

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Week 48: Hero – Phillip Hughes

November 30, 2014

This week’s Hero of the Week is the tragic Australian cricket batsman Phillip Hughes. The South Australia batter looked pretty well set – 63 not out, he was just going through that phase when a batsman knows he’s got the bowling licked and can start to swing his bat. It is the period in an […]

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#962: 1964, Bob Dylan, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

November 28, 2014

…And swear words and sneering and his tongue it was snarling… As if we really needed to be reminded this week that the Nasty Party never went away, two incidents of powerful Tories launching into tirades against those they view as their inferiors have played a prominent role in this week’s news. First, we had David […]

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Sportsnight #42: 1973, Scotland v Czechoslovakia

November 27, 2014

Good evening and welcome to a special edition of Sportsnight. Tonight’s action comes from Hampden Park, and a crucial World Cup Qualifying match between Scotland and Czechoslovakia in 1973. A huge occasion. A win, and Scotland qualified for the World Cup Finals for the first time since 1958. The game was a sell-out of 100,000. […]

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Allthatsleft Exclusive: Leaked Minutes from The Scottish Commission

November 27, 2014

At midnight last night, at Burger King just off the M1 in Morpeth, we at Allthatsleft were presented with an exclusive copy of the minutes of the final meeting of The Scottish Commission – we reprint extracts for you here. Date: November 4th 2014 Present: Lord Smith of Kelvin (LS), John Swinney (JS), Annabelle Goldie […]

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Cine-East Film Club Presents #59: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (Mike Nichols)

November 26, 2014

George: Try and I’ll beat you at your own game. Martha: Is that a threat George, huh? George: It’s a threat, Martha. Martha: You’re gonna get it, baby. George: Be careful Martha. I’ll rip you to pieces. Martha: You’re not man enough. You haven’t the guts. George: Total war. Martha: Total. Mike Nichols died on […]

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