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Reviewed: The Flipside presents The Small World of Sammy Lee at the NFT

Sammy_lee

Those fellahs at The Flipside have done it again; they’ve tracked down a forgotten gem of British Cinema and who knows where The Small World of Sammy Lee has been hiding since it was made in 1962?

If you’re anything like me, the name Anthony Newley tends to conjure up a picture of a light entertainer who seemed to belong to the Victorian Music Hall tradition, more than the Swingin’ Age he became famous in. This film pays testament to his talent as an actor, and a damn good one at that.

The plot is a little hackneyed, that of a small-time comic who scratches a living introducing the strippers in a particularly grubby Soho night spot, who must pay a colossal gambling debt within a few hours or he’ll end up as a punchbag for a local villain’s henchman. His hapless attempts to raise the money are totally believeable and grimly hilarious.

Newley’s portrayal of Sammy ‘Lee’ Leeman is so matter of fact, you forget you’re watching a slice of exploitation cinema, and warm to him no matter what you think of his choice of profession or the places he exercises it in. 

The opening shots of grimy Soho, in merciful black and white, at the start of another working day, set the scene brilliantly for what it to come. As market stall holders set up in Berwick Street, Sammy is losing a fortune in a cellar gambling club, the illumination coming from the morning sunlight through the luxcrete overhead. The street shots, sometimes done with a hidden camera, sometimes all too obviously a visible one, show sights familiar to anyone who spends a little time there each day, but not the present-day café and night club scene. This is the Soho of the early 60’s, with gambling and strip clubs only recently legalised, springing up like rank weeds everywhere. Every third doorway appears to be a strip club, the others being cafes (brief shots of The Heaven & Hell and The Two I’s being particular highlights) and foreign restaurants. Was that a young mod on his scooter? Maybe.

Sammy’s visit to his brother’s grocer’s shop (Lou, played by the ever—watchable Warren Mitchell) has some great Jewish London banter. Lou is of course fully aware of the reason for Sammy’s rare visit.

Lou:       Five minutes you’ve been in my shop, you haven’t even asked me how’s business
Sammy: How’s business, Lou?
Lou:       Don’t ask! Look at all the people who aren’t coming in to the shop, all the business I’m not getting.

The appearance of Lou’s wife, Milly, played with relish by Miriam Karlin, all haughty demeanour and glaring contempt for her dissolute brother-in-law, is enough to freeze the gherkins in their jars

Lou: I ask her, how many pairs of shoes do you need, you’ve only got one pair of feet!

Truly touching is Lou’s offer of all he has in the till of his failing business - £25/0/0. Sammy needs much more than this, and starts hustling for any business he can get-flogging drinking glasses to a club owner on account, using the profit to pay for cheap wristwatches, unloading them onto someone else, his petty errands being carried out by his ageing dresser, the irreplaceable Wilfrid Brambell. Sammy’s trip to a snooker hall to try and unload more junk onto one of Soho’s more successful villains, leads him into more profitable territory. Our immaculately turned out, and icy-cold crime lord is none other than Alfred Burke (from late 60’s, early 70’s TV’s Public Eye) who suggests a little dope transaction might be the thing to make a little money in a hurry. Something of a taboo subject at the time, this is handled particulary well by the filmmakers, and even manages to fit in a social exclusion/racial theme with Sammy’s visit to a cool Jazz Club to seek out a possible dope connection. Asking the black pianist who he should see about this matter, the musician spits out his contempt for Sammy’s assumption that because he’s black, he has all the criminal connections in the palm of his hand. 

By the time we’re halfway through Sammy’s small world, we realise that the filmmakers must have known Soho inside out, what with the access to what appear to be real strip joints, clubs and people. 

The appearance of Patsy (Julia Foster in an assured performance, despite her tender years) a girl from the north who seems to have taken Sammy’s offer of a job seriously and even innocently, is another cliché’d storyline that, in the hands of these actors, becomes something of surprising value. Her initiation into stripping is another reminder that this is no lightweight thriller or high-minded piece of cinema verite, but a masterly piece of exploitation, made on the hoof. 

Sammy’s attempts to come up with the money he owes are all turning on paper-thin profits and when Wilfrid Brambell’s put-upon dresser returns from the last errand with a cheque instead of cash (Arthur Daley would have blanched at the sigh of it!) and only minutes to go, Sammy knows he is in for a beating. His speech to the assembled Strip Club habitués is as moving as it is scabrous:

‘Gentlemen, and I use that term loosely, we have in here one of Soho’s lowest, cheapest and downright shoddiest shows, and by the look of you lot, you deserve it.’   

The last scene is so poignant and so pathetic, I am not going to spoil it for you by describing it. I am just going beg whoever owns this fantastic film, to get it out on video/DVD or TV by any means necessary, because it is a magnificent piece of work. The period detail alone was worth the price of the ticket, (yes, I was craning my neck to see if I could spot some jukeboxes with attendant mods) its position in that well-loved  decade enough to get me south of the river on a cold April night to see it, but the quality of the acting was the real prize here, and from actors you would not normally see in a film of this type.

If I’ve made any readers green with envy, well, sorry about that, especially the ones who may live far from London’s NFT. I did spot a face here and there in the large crowd of interested parties. The rest of you – you missed one great film!

Scenester

Comments

Will Kane

Truly a great film; I spent much of the running time thinking "Why isn't this famous?!!!"

Newley is magnificent; his timing and movement and gestures choreographed down to the last detail. Mannered in a way, but so graceful, he's almost dancing.

Soho looks fantastic; shot on location, including the interiors, in the French Nouvelle Vague style; and still instantly recognisable

It's a credit to it's creators that they turned what on paper seem like a collection of movie clichés of the period into a completely nail-biting narrative; literally in my case. I think it's far superior to the similarly themed-and-located, but mostly studio-bound Richard Widmark movie 'Night in the City'.

The way I've described Sammy to the many, many people I've raved about this to this week (whether they wanted me to or not), is "'Mean Streets'-era Scorsese directing 'Bilko' in 60s London".

Sadly the rights are held by the French-based company Canal+ who show no signs of releasing this anytime soon.

There's a great 'Playboy After Dark' clip on Youtube where Bill Cosby and Sammy Davis Jr reveal they loved the movie so much they had both wanted to remake 'Sammy Lee' with themselves in the lead.
The movie version of 'Sammy Lee' was itself, a remake of a BBC TV Play made by the movie's writer/director Ken Hughes and Newley, remade for U.S. TV with Mickey Rooney in the Newley role.

Mark Brindle

I was so glad I went along.

Why is this film not shown on the TV on a regular basis.

The atmospheric shots of Soho were superb and some great performances from some of Britains finest character actors.

Oh and plenty of Scooters as well :-)

Delroy Del Rio

What was the year and title of the Micket Rooney version ?

Jo Kimblin

saw this film once, 1963. I have longed to see it again, never forgotten the performances of Newley and Julia Foster. Will keep hoping I see it again.

penny gardner

Oh WOW ,did you spot Linda (Lynda) Baron as the stripper in the cold bath!!?

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