UK Award-winning Arts Documentary Film-maker

Mike Dibb: UK Award-winning Arts Documentary Film-maker

On Location in Lone Pine

Draft article for Sight and Sound by Mike Dibb 1992

My father was the most organised man I’ve ever known. He was a GP on the east coast of Yorkshire and, despite a town and country round each day of many miles and many visits, if he said he would be back at one o’clock, at one o’clock there he would be. He was a passionate musician and his large classical record collection was meticulously numbered and catalogued in a book which my mother still uses every day. He was also a keen cinemagoer. He used to go once, and often twice a week and, being my father, kept a little book about that too. Every Sunday he would enter the titles of the new films and against each would place one, two or three stars based on the opinions of The Observer’s film critic C.A. Lejeune. There was a column for his own starred estimate and space for a very brief comment. I would love to look through it now but of course, being my father, he threw it away without sentimentality when he thought it no longer of any use. One thing I do remember is his response to The African Queen. He was a great fan of Katherine Hepburn but after Lejeune’s 3 star recommendation he just entered his own disillusioned blob of disappointment, followed by two words...Oh Dear! (personally I’ve always thought John Huston an over-rated director and perhaps the seed of that judgement was sown in my father’s book).

Unfortunately, as is often the way, I have resisted much of my father’s neatness, punctuality and sense of order, but, as is often the way, when I first discovered my own passion for the cinema I found myself following his example. The year was 1960 and I was halfway through a degree course at Trinity College, Dublin. It was there that I met by chance that very rare thing in those days, a post-graduate FILM student, over on a visit from The Slade College of Art in London. His name was Charles Barr. Later he was to publish exemplary studies of Laurel and Hardy and Ealing Studios, but at the time he was in the middle of writing a thesis on cinemascope. He was the first person I had ever met who had actually seen a film ten times. I couldn’t believe it. And the film in question was not a “serious” European Art house movie but THE JAMES BROTHERS, a western directed by Nicholas Ray. It was a revelation, both for me and a close friend Peter Bell. Very soon Peter and I were on our way to see two more Westerns RIDE LONESOME and COMMANCHE STATION, directed by someone I’d never heard of Budd Boetticher. They were wonderful. A new world was opening up and we realised that we were not living in a cultural backwater of movie-Europe where art films turned up rather late and often censored but in a cultural cornucopia of undiscovered American cinema. Indeed Dublin was the very best place for us to be. Telefis Eirrean hadn’t yet started. Meanwhile Ireland had the highest per-capita cinema-going public of country in Western Europe. Dublin was awash with 30 or more small cinemas all over the city, each with a double bill which changed three times a week, Monday to Wednesday, Thursday to Friday, with a complete change of programme on Sunday when it was normally necessary to book in advance.

Our next challenge was to find a more efficient way of accessing the gems in this ever changing public library of British and American films. Peter began subscribing to Cahiers du Cinema, then in its heyday of Truffautesque and Godardian US orientated hyperbole, but it was another French publication that became our bible. VINGT ANS DE CINEMA AMERICAIN had just been published in Paris. It was edited by Jean-Pierre Coursodon and among its contributors was the French director Bertrand Tavernier. After a year by year summary of the evolution of Hollywood from 1940 to 1960 it contained very opinionated biographies of all the major and minor directors, stars and supporting actors. What it didn't contain however was a list of the films referred to and this became our next task. In the spirit of my orderly father, Peter and I painstakingly went through the whole book extracting all the film titles, often translating them from French, and recompiling them into an alphabetical dictionary, of which we each still have a copy. We invented our own star system of directorial evaluation and, needless to say, bought the whole “auteur” theory lock stock and barrel! We were on our way.

Every day the Dublin Evening papers devoted several columns to complete listings and times for all films showing throughout the city and its suburbs. After a quick glance at our dictionary we were off to catch THE STRANGER (Orson Welles 1946), given only supporting picture status at The Rialto, Dundrum; next day it was off to The Gala, Ballyfermot, to catch Burt Lancaster swinging his way through THE CRIMSON PIRATE, (“bondissant et savoureux” Robert Siodmak 1952), followed by an Anthony Mann western or Don Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (“le meilleur film de science fiction que nous ayons jamais vu”) or another particular favourite, Budd Boetticher’s gangster movie THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND, a new release in 1960. Indeed, if I had to think of a single group of films that encapsulated the naive but real excitement of that period of my life it would have to be those of Budd Boetticher. Andre Bazin, the editor of Cahiers du Cinema, called his film SEVEN MEN FROM NOW “le plus simple et le plus beau western d’après guerre”. It was just one of a string of small scale B feature westerns, each of them featuring the almost expressionless yet vivid presence of Randolph Scott, and almost all of them written by the same writer Burt Kennedy. They belonged to a period in Hollywood, alas long gone, when a small group of people could find a creative space inside the system. Working at the low budget end of a popular genre Boetticher and his team were able to take familiar features of this genre and give them genuinely fresh and inventive inflections; this modest sequence of films had the simplicity, spare dialogue, visual elegance and humour of the best moral fables, and, in their own way were exemplary. I think what I also really liked was that they were B features and therefore ignored by the mainstream critics of The National Newspapers, whose opinions I didn’t much rate anyway They were films, I felt, whose qualities I was discovering for myself with, of course, a little initial help from the French...and Charles Barr. Charles continued to be a more frenetic film goer than me. I never matched his (alleged) 21 films in one long weekend in Belfast. All I could manage was two films a day, every day for three months, while studying for my final exams at Dublin University. If only they’d allowed me to answer questions on Hollywood 1940-1960, rather than on English and Spanish literature, I know I’d have got a better degree.

Mike Dibb, 29 April 1992