Thursday, 12 February 2015

Great Wine Moments In Movie History VI: Gideon Of Scotland Yard

Gideon Of Scotland Yard (1958) is not much of a film, not by anyone's standards, and certainly not by the standards of its director, the legendary John Ford. What the creator of The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was doing in the late 1950's with the small-budget London-based policier which is Gideon, is a bit of mystery. But there it is, Ford's only cop movie and one of very few films that he set in (what was then) the present day. I have now seen it twice, which is probably once more than John Ford ever saw it.

What's the story? We follow Chief Inspector George Gideon (played by Jack Hawkins, an actor whose head was directly attached to collar of his suit, no neck involved) through the course of one stupendously busy day, involving multiple murders, gun crime (quite a rarity in 1950's England), a Docklands boys' club, bribery & corruption, some fresh fish, an assault occasioning actual bodily harm, several routine traffic offences, and a lino-textured subplot involving the Inspector's daughter (played by a very young Anna Massey) and a chinless tyro police constable.

In the course of the action Inspector Gideon consumes (along with several cigarettes and a couple of pipefuls of ready-rubbed) five cups of tea, two bottles of beer, one pint of draught bitter, and two whiskies. Other members of the cast get through tea, whisky, a pint of half-and-half (light & bitter? mild & bitter?), gin (part of my ongoing gin fixation finding expression in the towering goblet of neat, room-temperature gin drained off in one scene by the slatternly wife of Cyril Cusack, playing a police snitch), plus a glass of some other drink. This is briefly sipped by Mrs. Kirby, the wife of a bent (and actually, dead) copper, before being tossed furiously in Gideon's startled granite face. What is it? It is never made clear - but it could be some kind of wine.

Not an appellation, clearly - this is 1958, and most of England was nowhere near that kind of cosmopolitanism, except at some restaurants and mausoleum-like gentlemen's clubs - but I'm guessing a wine-based beverage, maybe a Vermouth, maybe some kind of horrible Tonic Wine, a Wincarnis, at any rate something consumed in a chi-chi patterned wineglass with a stem and a foot, things that Inspector Gideon would be immediately suspicious of.

Rightly so: drink, soft or alcoholic, not only punctuates the movie, it provides a rubric, a commentary on the moral sense of the drinker. Tea, British tea, is the constant on which everything else depends. The virtuous consume it like water. Even the widow of the bent copper, otherwise a picture of weakness and corruption, has a cup of tea at The Yard while in for questioning, a sign that her sense of right and wrong is still, just, reclaimable. At the other end of the continuum of virtue? Whisky. In the film's only scene of real tenderness, Gideon and his superdependable ADC, Sergeant Golightly, share a nip of whisky from a hipflask kept in a filing cabinet and mutely reaffirm their love.

It is also whisky which is offered by the vampy Mrs. Dellafield - yet another suspect in the incredible catalogue of toerags and grifters who make up Gideon's day. She gives him a choice of drinks: he opts for whisky, of course. She is still on safe ground at this point. But when she attempts to drown the precious fluid in ginger ale, Gideon's suspicions go straight into the red zone, rightly, as it happens. Whisky, morally correct in the proper hands, becomes ambiguous, part of the currency of investigation, in the wrong ones.

But then, we kind of know from the start that Mrs. Dellafield is up to no good, the moment we glimpse her drinks tray on the way in: it looks just like Mrs. Kirby's – in fact it might even be the same props, cynically re-used. What have we already seen in Mrs. Kirby's illicitly-paid-for apartment? A couple of decent post-War big brown bottles with black and white labelling - whisky, perhaps a sherry too - but also some deformed and foreign-looking glassware and even a thing like a champagne bottle. I mean, it can't be, but the message is clear: the merest suspicion of wine, and you've got a likely perpetrator. Same stuff in the Dellafield studio-cum-boho-pad? All it takes is five minutes (after all, the Inspector still hasn't been home for his dinner) and the cuffs are on.

It's a simpler world, and in many ways, a much more appealing one. If your drink of choice is brown - tea, beer, whisky - you're probably in the clear. Any other colour? Alarm bells ring. Police work was like that in 1958. In fact, everything was like that. Mine's a half-and-half, and I'll trouble you for one of those individual pork pies, if I may.

CJ


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