It's April of 1962 and your kid wants to see the new Hayley Mills movie.
"Please!" she begs. "She was so groovy in The Parent Trap!"
(What? '62 is too early for "groovy." Okay, how about "keen" or "boss" or whatever Annette used to say to Frankie at the beach?)
"The Parent Trap?" you reply. "Isn't that the one where she played singing twins who conspire to get their parents back together while trying to hide their inexplicable British accents?"
It is. So you take her to see Whistle Down the Wind, because the title sounds vaguely Disney-like, and you can't check it out first on Rotten Tomatoes. Because, again, it's 1962.
But you don't get a colorful cinematic confection that's fun for the whole family. You get a black & white parable about three motherless children in a hardscrabble, Northern England town and the escaped murderer they hide in their barn -- because they think he's the second coming of Christ.
Pollyanna, this is not.
After missing it at the 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood (with Hayley Mills in attendance!) I got a second chance to catch Whistle Down the Wind (sans Hayley) on the closing day of the recent BAMcinemaFest in Brooklyn. And it's a revelation, with some of the most charming child actors I've seen on screen.
Produced by Richard Attenborough (30 years before he would bid us "Welcome...to Jurassic Park") and directed by Bryan Forbes for U.K. production house Allied Film Makers, Whistle Down the Wind is a deft hybrid of allegory and farce. It's also a remarkably frank piece of social commentary and a brilliant example of British New Wave realism, with fourteen-year-old Mills as the archetypal "angry young man." Or "lass," as the case may be.
Forbes establishes the dour tone immediately as the three siblings -- Mills as Cathy, Diane Holgate as 11-year-old Nan and Alan Barnes as the youngest, known as "Our Charles" -- rescue drowning kittens from a river where they've been sacked (literally) by their father's farmhand. As they smuggle the kitty contraband back home, the kids stumble upon a Salvation Army revival meeting, and the roadside Come-to-Jesus primes their impressionable minds.
That evening, while furtively feeding the felines, Kathy discovers a bearded man (Alan Bates) in the family barn. She nervously asks who he is, but the injured stranger collapses before he can answer, muttering "Jesus Christ" as he hits the hay. The power of suggestion still ringing in her ears like the hymns of the "Sally Army" brass band, Kathy decides that she's been called upon to save the Savior.
I know, it sounds like a Monty Python sketch, maybe with Graham Chapman as Mills and Michael Palin sporting his "It's" beard as the Messiah-on-the-run. And there were plenty of snickers echoing through the packed house at BAM, during what the Festival promoted as the first New York screening "in decades." But Forbes navigates the funny premise with care and confidence and delivers a film that makes a powerful case for the transformative power of believing -- perhaps the only thematic element it shares with the live action Disney films Mills helped to popularize.
With a screenplay by Billy Liar scribes Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (based upon the novel by Mills' mother Mary Hayley Bell), Whistle Down the Wind is unflinchingly satirical, though never disrespectful to people of faith. For the Bostock children, raised by a brusque father (Bernard Lee, "M" from the early Bond films) and a hostile auntie, the man in the hayloft is their savio(u)r in every sense. Kathy, teetering on the brink of uncertain adulthood, embraces the fantasy more desperately than the others, and fights hardest to maintain it. Mills' scenes with Bates are some of the most powerful in the film, her face contorted in a conflation of worship and want. Mills' moving and nuanced performance was honored with a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress, close on the heels of the Special Juvenile Academy Award she received for Pollyanna.
In his first major film role, Bates is charismatic and compelling as the kind-hearted fugitive with the complicated back-story. He deftly treads the villain/hero line, struggling to live up to the lie he never told while simultaneously daring the children to disbelieve it. (Sample dialogue: Bates to Mills: "You didn't bring any ciggies, did you?" Mills to Bates: "Oh no. I didn't know you smoked.") Forbes and cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson add to the subliminal empathy by shooting Bates in a variety of beatific close-ups, often framed by the rafters of the barn.
With his adorable Lancastrian accent, Wellies and Barnabas Collins bangs, Alan Barnes as the stone-faced "Our Charles" gives the kind of pitch-perfect performance only a child can. Every word he says is fun to listen to, and not just because he sounds like a pint-sized Paul McCartney. Plus he's got the best line of the movie: "He's not Jesus. He's just a fella." (Maybe I should have prefaced that with SPOILER ALERT! My bad.)
Attenborough and Forbes (partners at the time in a company called Beaver Films) cast all the supporting juvenile roles -- more than a dozen speaking parts -- with untrained locals from the rural Lancashire communities in which they filmed, and the results are startlingly realistic. There's no moment in which naturalism is surrendered for matinee melodrama, even during the neo-Spielbergian, children vs. grown-ups climax. If only we could say the same for the American family films of that era (with all due respect to Uncle Walt.)
The realism that pervades this movie owes a lot to Ibbetson, whose stark tableaus of barren trees and belching smokestacks represent perfectly the "grim North" of story, stage and Smiths songs. Ironically, Ibbetson would go on to shoot Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Forbes would direct The Stepford Wives, two of the most delightful pieces of Polyester from America's campiest decade. But a decade earlier, Ibbetson's bleak visuals and Forbes' simple yet inventive staging resulted in a low-key delight that has ripened into an essential.
Inexplicably, Whistle Down the Wind has never been released on DVD in the United States. A PAL-formatted DVD is available for those with region-free DVD players, and a user named AcesHigh1916 has posted the film to YouTube in ten-minute chunks with strategically misspelled filenames (to avoid the copyright police, I assume). While I never advocate piracy -- unless it involves special effects by Ray Harryhausen -- this may be your only chance to see Whistle Down the Wind in this country.
There is another option, though. A 50th anniversary screening and reunion of townspeople who appeared in the film is scheduled for August 7, 2011 at the Village Hall in Donwnham, Lancashire. Coincidentally, I happen to be available that day. If Hayley Mills is too, and TCM agrees to fly both of us there with a modest video crew, I would be glad to produce a luvly interstitial segment. TCM could air it, along with the film, in celebration of the anniversary of the U.S. release of Whistle Down the Wind in April of 2012.
Now that would really be groovy.