Director: Ken Hughes
Cast: Anthony Newley, Julia Foster, Wilfrid Brambell, Robert Stephens, Warren Mitchell, Miriam Karlin, Toni Palmer
Running Time: 107 minutes
Ken Hughes’ film, made in 1963, has a reputation for being lost somehow over the years. Telling the story of Sammy Lee (Anthony Newly), the film follows him over a day as he tries to hustle together £300 to pay back a local gangster. Matters are troubled, however, as he juggles his job as a compere in a seedy Soho strip club throughout the day and is met by the arrival of Patsy (Julia Foster), whom he briefly had a fling with some six months ago, as she has just arrived in London.
Hughes is best known for CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, a film that’s a far cry from the unsavoury happenings of 1960s Soho, and Newly enjoyed more success with his singer/songwriter work (he penned Feeling Good and received an Academy Award nomination for WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY). Perhaps those achievements go a long way in explaining how this film has been forgotten. However, this restoration by Studiocanal attempts to rediscover the film that they label as a ‘undiscovered gem’.
The restoration gloriously recaptures cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky’s black and white frames which Hughes places, right from the off, on the streets of London. One of the best things about SAMMY LEE is how it captures the city. Hughes brings an old-fashioned hustle and bustle to proceedings as Sammy hustles himself, in a manner that would make Del Boy proud, to try to raise the money he owes. Hughes’ camera is usually low, tracking Newly from one deal to another, before it rises as the things catch up to him in the film’s final act. It’s in the tracking of Sammy that Suschitzy’s work really shines, not to mention the gloom he brings to the many establishments Sammy frequents throughout the day.
The film has a damning ending, one that I won’t spoil here, but Hughes, who adapted the screenplay from his TV-play Sammy, has clear intentions about Sammy, the choices he makes and the consequences he eventually suffers because of them. The film is set within the Peep Show world and Hughes holds nothing back in his depiction of that life, especially through Patsy.
Newly, as mentioned before, was more known for his musical work, but here he is great in the title role. He possesses many qualities (sympathy, humour, pride, honour) that lead us to both be with Sammy in his mission and be against him because he’s there in the first place. Sammy is the loveable loser who is just a loser, his relationship with Patsy evidences this. He has a kind of tragic nobility to him but you know you can’t trust that because of how he treats Patsy and the decisions he makes along the way. Foster plays the patsy well, imbuing the character with naivety and wide-eyed hope of both life in the big city and adulthood. She learns lessons throughout the day in, what can be seen as, Hughes’ outlook on females in 60s Britain.
All of these elements read as a particularly tough watch, but THE SMALL WORLD OF SAMMY LEE is anything but, in fact it’s a delightfully pleasant watch. The script moves from its different circumstances in a breezy manner that you get caught up in Sammy’s day, but it knows when to stop things to cast light on the real issues Hughes is raising. That’s why Hughes’s film is well worth discovering and rediscovering.
THE SMALL WORLD OF SAMMY LEE is released by Studiocanal on November 14th.