Since 1933, the British Film Institute has helped fund and preserve filmmaking in the U.K. Its efforts include the magazine Sight & Sound, several festivals, London movie theaters, the world’s largest film archive, and a streaming service that hasn’t been available to viewers in the U.S. — until now, that is.
This month saw the debut of BFI Player Classics, a collection of 200-plus British productions and co-productions from the silent era through today. It contains quite a few excellent, but expected, classics from the British canon. If you haven’t seen The Third Man, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Wicker Man, or The Lion and Winter, it’s a great place to catch up with those. But it’s also home to titles less familiar to American audiences, including many that have been hard to track down — or virtually unseen — on these shores. For Anglophiles, cinephiles, and the Venn-diagram overlap of the two, it’s invaluable.
Here’s a handful of films you might not have had a chance to see before to get you started.
The London Nobody Knows (1967)
Artist and writer George S. Fletcher made a career of chronicling London’s overlooked corners, from off-the-beaten paths landmarks to unfashionable neighborhoods to fading reminders of the city’s not-so-distant past. This short documentary loosely adapts Fletcher’s best-known book, sending James Mason out to comment on crumbling music halls, Victorian bathrooms where the attendants used to keep goldfish in glass cases above the urinals, and Salvation Army shelters that serve as the last stop for the city’s most down-and-out residents. It’s an alternately fascinating, whimsical, and bittersweet look at the city Fletcher loved even as he watched it slip away.
Radio On (1979)
Like The London Nobody Knows, this first film by novelist-director Chris Petit doubles as a time capsule for the era in which it was made. David Beames stars as Robert, a disaffected London DJ who sets off for Bristol by car to learn what he can about his brother’s suicide, a journey soundtracked in part by the Kraftwerk cassettes the brother sent him as a parting gift. Inspired by the road movies of Wim Wenders, who helped produce the film, Petit uses black-and-white images of the roadside bars and abandoned gas stations of southern England as a landscape filled with lost souls looking for meaning in the second half of the 20th century (to the accompaniment of songs by David Bowie, Devo, and others). It’s an austere but rewarding journey — and if that isn’t enough, halfway through Sting makes a memorable appearance as a young magician who lives in a camper that doubles as a shrine to the tragic rock hero Eddie Cochran.
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) & The Ladykillers (1955)
Alec Guinness always expressed mixed feelings about playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, the role that’s served as the actor’s introduction to virtually every filmgoer born after the release of Star Wars. That isn’t a bad place to start with Guinness, but it’s a terrible place to stop. Rewards await those who plunge deeper into Guinness’s career, one grounded in the actor’s chameleonic ability to disappear into roles. That’s particularly evident in the comedies Guinness made for Ealing Studios in the 1940s and 1950s. While not exactly unknown to American audiences, thanks in part in recent years to some titles making appearances via the Criterion Collection, Ealing comedies have never been an institution here like they are in the U.K.
For evidence of why they’ve enjoyed such popularity there, look no further than Guinness’s tour-de-force work in the droll black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which the actor plays nine members of the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family, each targeted for murder by a distant relative (Dennis Price) with an eye on the family fortune. Or check out another story about attempted theft. In The Ladykillers, Guinness plays the ghoulish mastermind of a gang of criminals using an elderly Londoner’s flat as part of an elaborate robbery. (The latter co-stars Peter Sellers, who idolized Guinness. It was remade, with mixed results, by Joel and Ethan Coen in 2004.) Ealing and Guinness were perfectly suited for each other; the actor’s gracefulness and daring fits snugly into the studio’s witty, gently madcap comedies. These two will get you started, but you’ll want to press on with other Ealing/Guinness collaborations like The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit.
Passport to Pimlico (1949)
Ealing didn’t necessarily need Guinness to make a great comedy. One of the studio’s best, Passport to Pimlico, is set in the eponymous London neighborhood, a friendly, scrappy working-class enclave thrown into chaos and confusion when an attempt to recover an unexploded bomb reveals a cache of treasures — and a secret. It turns out Pimlico isn’t technically part of England at all, thanks to a medieval decree ceding the territory to the Duke of Burgundy. After its residents decide they’d be better off breaking off on their own, a political stalemate gives way to an all-out siege. Filmed in part in London neighborhoods still visibly scarred from World War II (though not in Pimlico itself), the wry comedy unfolds against the backdrop of a nation still struggling to return to the way things used to be as it tries to work toward a brighter future.
Dead of Night (1945)
Though Ealing is now best known for its comedies, they were far from the only sort of film the studio made. The work of four directors, this omnibus horror film uses a gathering at a country house as an excuse to depict a series of spooky stories about ghosts, twists of fate and, most famously, a ventriloquist’s dummy who seems to have a life of his own. A favorite of Martin Scorsese, it’s sometimes corny, sometimes chilling, always entertaining and builds to a wild twist ending. It also provided a model for horror anthology films from Black Sabbath to Tales from the Hood to follow.
The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
Dead of Night’s directors include Basil Dearden, who enjoyed a long career in the decades that followed. The Man Who Haunted Himself, Dearden’s final film (he died in a car accident shortly after completing it), plays a bit like an extended Dead of Night entry, building to a twist that’s easy to see coming but employing so much style and atmosphere along the way it’s hard to mind. Roger Moore stars Harold Pelham, a buttoned-up executive who, in the film’s opening scenes, inexplicably unbuckles his safety belt and begins driving recklessly. One fiery crash later, he’s declared dead on the surgeon’s table, only to spring back to life and resume his predictable routine. So why does he keep hearing stories of wild nights spent gambling and who’s the sexy young woman who seems to act as if they know each other extremely well? It seems that Pelham has picked up a doppelgänger, one who’s having a much better time being Harold Pelham than he’s having. Roger Moore made the film in the years between starring in The Saint and becoming James Bond, and he spoke of it fondly as a chance to do some real acting for a change and he’s remarkably believable as a repressed suburbanite (albeit one repressing a suave man of action just waiting to get out).
Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair (1978)
Taking a cue from the Criterion Channel, BFI Player Classics has curated some of its titles into themed collections, including one dedicated to films directed by women. That includes this true obscurity made by the team of Susan Shapiro, Esther Ronay, and Francine Winham, which tells the Grimm Brothers fairy tale of Rapunzel — then retells it several times over in various forms: as a work of experimental animation, as a detective story, and so on. Some approaches work better than others, but it’s a neat experiment made at a moment when feminist voices didn’t always find a place in British film.
The Three Musketeers (1973) & The Four Musketeers (1974)
Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers has been filmed many times over the years, but seldom as winningly as with this two-part adaptation from Richard Lester, which brings some of the anarchic spirit and unbridled playfulness of the director’s films with the Beatles to the familiar story. It’s not all frothiness, however; though it remains mostly lighthearted, a sense of weariness with war and its inhumane absurdities starts to creep into the sequel. The two films (originally filmed as one) bring in seemingly every big star of the era, from Michael York to Raquel Welch to Charlton Heston, which undoubtedly helped make them hits in their day.
The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
Few directors were as comfortable with excess as Ken Russell, who won acclaim with the D.H. Lawrence adaptation Women in Love and used it as a springboard to make everything from the much-censored The Devils to an adaptation of The Who’s Tommy, Altered States, Crimes of Passion, and other films that rarely cooled down from a fever pitch. Loosely adapted from a book by Dracula author Bram Stoker, this knowingly over-the-top horror movies concerns an English snake cult and features all the kink and cheap jolts Russell could dream up to fit into such a story (including one of the most overtly Freudian dream sequences ever put to film). Amanda Donohoe stars as a snake-worshipping priestess opposite a young Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi.
Peeping Tom (1960)
With Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell formed half of the great filmmaking team known as the Archers, whose output includes one classic film after another: The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death … the list goes on. So far, however, BFI Player Classics includes only the Archers’ vivid filming of the Jacques Offenbach opera The Tales of Hoffmann (a classic in its own right, but not the most representative example of their work) and their short, kid-focussed swan song, The Boy Who Turned Yellow. It does, however, have this fascinating thriller directed by Powell as a solo venture. Carl Boehm stars as a killer/aspiring filmmaker, a set-up that allows Powell to explore the sometimes unsavory connection between film, voyeurism, and darker impulses in terms more explicit than the Hitchcock movies that inspired it. A critically derided flop that did serious damage to Powell’s career at the time, its reputation has only risen over the years.
Billy Liar (1963)
Before finding international success with films like Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man, John Schlesinger was one of the leading lights of the British New Wave, which combined some of the stylistic breakthroughs of the French New Wave with an interest in an emerging generation of working class youth. Here Tom Courtenay stars as Billy, a ne’er-do-well prone to elaborate fantasies whose shiftless ways and escapist impulses threaten his future and alienate his friends and family. Julie Christie, soon to star in Schlesinger’s great Darling (also on BFI Player Classics), co-stars as the woman who might help him find a way out, if there is one.
A different sort of overactive imagination troubles Anne (Charlotte Burke), the 11-year-old London girl at the center of Bernard Rose’s adaptation of the 1958 novel Marianne Dreams in which a girl discovers she can slip into the world of her own drawings in her dreams. She’s not alone, there, however. Walking into a house in the middle of an open field, Anne meets a boy named Marc (Elliott Spiers), who can’t use his legs and warns her of trouble on the horizon. Though the book was written by Catherine Storr with kid readers in mind, the film will probably seem too dark and scary for most younger viewers. Older kids and adults, however, will appreciate Rose’s imaginative, and creepy, use of sets and situations that mimic the feelings of dreams and suggest the sense of childhood helplessness that comes with grappling with troubling concepts like loneliness and death. Never released on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S. (though it’s been rentable digitally for awhile), it’s the sort of buried treasure that makes exploring the hidden depths of a streaming service worth the effort — and doubles as an invitation to see what else is out there waiting to be found.