West Is Best: Ryan Gilbey Wonders Why British Directors Seem to Do Better in Hollywood

By Gilbey, Ryan | New Statesman (1996), June 7, 2010 | Go to article overview

West Is Best: Ryan Gilbey Wonders Why British Directors Seem to Do Better in Hollywood


Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)


The Killer Inside Me (18)

dir: Michael Winterbottom

Considering the phenomenon of home-grown directors who punch above their weight on American soil - Mike Figgis (Internal Affairs, Leaving Las Vegas), Roger Michell (Changing Lanes), Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco), Bernard Rose (Ivansxtc) - a screenwriter friend opined: "How come Brits never make movies like those when they stay at home?"

Not that passing through US immigration is enough on its own to confer artistic excellence and psychological insight on a film-maker. Alfred Hitchcock was already a genius before he went to America. Neil Jordan's US work has been dedicated to unleashing his inner hack. And Figgis had to endure a highly public Hollywood scolding over Mr Jones before the industry kissed him better for Leaving Las Vegas. But when it works, there is a tension between admiration and disdain, experienced by Britain towards the US, which is a gift to forensic detachment. Take that "big four" of pictures made by Brits in America, which are among the most probing in all cinema: Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success, John Boorman's Point Blank and Stephen Frears's The Grifters.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It can't be a coincidence that all except The Night of the Hunter have stakes of varying sizes in film noir; it's a genre that provides a fruitful angle from which artists of any nationality can expose American dreams as nightmares in disguise. The outsider mentality inherent in a foreign director is lent another dimension by film noir: it chimes with the genre's staple character of the misfit and voyeur. (That perpetual outsider Terence Davies will be the next Brit to go noir when he adapts Ed McBain's He Who Hesitates.) It may also spring from an extension of the tired adage about two countries divided by a common language; this applies equally to our cinematic vocabulary, which can feel starker and more uncompromising when it describes an American subject or setting.

That proves partly to be the case with The Killer Inside Me, Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of Jim Thompson's 1952 noir novel about a sheriff who is unassuming to the point of blandness, but with a secretly psychopathic side. If the source material is American, the method of realising it on screen follows a more typically European model.

The difference today, as opposed to the 1960s of Point Blank, is that the old geographical divisions have become less distinct. The Killer Inside Me has its virtues, not to mention that pointlessness specific to anything that sets out to show how despicable humanity can be, but how culturally enshrined are they? Winterbottom, in his first movie shot in the US, places us fully in the head of a sadist, but there's nothing in his film that could not have come from Lodge Kerrigan, the American director whose psychological case studies include Clean, Shaven and Keane.

The Grifters was also adapted from Thompson, but Winterbottom's film retains more of the writer's sharp corners and abrasive surfaces. …

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