Friday, October 8, 2010

Roy Ward Baker (1916-2010)

One of my greatest cinematic experiences as a 10 year old boy was watching Roy Ward Baker's A Night to Remember (1958) on TV. Those days there wasn no way to watch old films in Iran and the only chance was waiting for a Friday afternoon movie, always worn-out copies and heavily censored, just to have a taste of what supposed to be Classic Films. A Night to Remember is still best imaginable titanic story. Better than German 1943 propaganda film. and definitely better than billion dollar kitsch of James Cameron (I haven't seen Jean Negulesco's 1953 version). Later on, I saw Don't Bother to Knock (1952) and it revealed that Baker has an assured ability to impose a distinctive style in almost any genre.

Roy Ward Baker was born in London on 19 December 1916, he entered the film industry in 1933 with Gainsborough and followed the classic industry career path, working his way up from tea-boy to runner and eventually assistant director. During the Second World War he worked with the Army Kinematograph Unit where he met the writer and producer Eric Ambler who was to give him his first feature credit as director on The October Man (1947) [which I'm impatiently waiting to see]. This striking debut established many of the qualities which were to distinguish Baker’s best work. The film’s complex, noirish plot is taughtly controlled, the visual style is lean but atmospheric and there is a detailed sense of both place and time. Baker also draws an unusually ambiguous performance from John Mills as the psychologically troubled central character who is accused of murder.

The October Man

The success of his Second World War submarine drama Morning Departure (1950) was to take him briefly to Hollywood. He directed 3 film noirs there, one of them a classic: Don't Bother to Knock about Richard Widmark meeting a beautiful and innocent, but deadly Marilyn Monroe. He even made a noir in 3D with a collaboration with cinematographer Lucien Ballard. The film is called Inferno (1953) about ruthless Robert Ryan who is left for dead in the desert by scheming wife and her lover.


He returned to Britain in 1955 and quickly re-established himself as a consistently reliable director of mainstream fare. Many people agree that Baker's most memorable output during 1950s is A Night to Remember. From the early 1960s Baker began to work on television and directed a number of episodes for some of the most popular and influential adventure series of the period, including The Avengers and The Saint. He also began the forays into the horror genre which were to become the distinctive feature of his later cinema work. His first assignment for Hammer was the third – and most ambitious – in the Quatermass series, Quatermass and the Pit (1967). Making full use of its eerie setting in the London underground, the film combines elements of science fiction and the occult, building to a startling conclusion as ‘the devil’ rises into the sky over London. Further horror films were to follow, making him a key figure in Britain’s Gothic film tradition. Baker returned for the last time to the horror genre with The Monster Club (1980), which I watched recently, and it's a satirical repetition of other Baker horror films, set in a punk rock club (don't forget the date of production!)

Don't Bother to Knock

Baker spent the last active years of his career in television. When he died at the age of 93, "Shifts in critical taste have seen his reputation change radically from that of efficient studio craftsman to near cult status as a genre stylist," as Robert Shail summarizes Baker's career in Critical Guide of British Film Directors.

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