Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Maggie (1954) - Alexander Mackendrick


Some films are best viewed at certain times of the day/week/year. Michael Bay flicks for instance aren't ever going to play as well on a Sunday morning as they do on a Saturday night. The same can be said for the films that emerged from Ealing Studios back in the middle of the last century. Whenever a rainy Saturday or Sunday afternoon comes along and I find myself at home alone, it's those warm unquestionably British films that I reach for first. Especially those directed by Alexander Mackendrick such as The Maggie. Which sadly seems to be overlooked in favour of Mackendrick's big hitters for the studio - The Ladykillers, The Man in the White Suit and Whiskey Galore! Which is a shame since this is just as perfect as any of those classics.

The Maggie is an old puffer (coal fueled boat) who like it's captain Mactaggart (Alex Mackenzie), has seen better days and should probably be put out to pasture now. Brash American businessman Calvin B. Marshall (Paul Douglas) meets his match when by a typical Ealing twist of fate, The Maggie is contracted to carry his valuable load. Once the mix up is discovered Marshall is determined to have his cargo removed from The Maggie and shipped by someone more reputable. After his bowler hat wearing lacky Pusey (Hubert Gregg), tries and fails (ending up in jail for poaching in one of the films most memorable sections) to reverse the problem he has set in motion, Marshall takes matters into his own hands. This is where the real meat of the film is, since from here on in the film becomes a battle of wits between the gentle Scottishness of Mactaggart and the throw money at problems, time is money attitude of Marshall.

It's a truly perfect post war British film, and contains just about everything I love about this period in British film making. Mackendrick's eye for framing is every bit as good as Carole Reed's or Hitchcock's, his compositions are both beautiful and practical. Just look at the way Pusey is framed when the cell door is slammed shut. The locations that The Maggie and her crew bob past are those jawdroppingly epic Scottish coastal ones that I love, and Mackendrick being a Scot himself obviously feels the same way. Although he never lingers on them, they are just there in the background drifting by looking sublime. There are no David Lean style setting the scene by showing the landscape shots. The script is tight with the film itself coming in at just under 90 minutes, the comedy is gentle and easygoing. Best of all though is the cast, who are just wonderful, from the smallest rolls up to that of the two leads, everyone turns in a great performance. The Wee Boy (Tommy Kearins) has quite a bit of business, loads of lines and is an essential part of the script, and yet despite the fact that this was his first and only film, Kearins proves to be a real find, believable yet still childlike.

There is almost a sub-genre of films set in rural Scotland pitting the wiley locals against some suit from the big smoke. I'm thinking about another favourite film here Local Hero, which is the closest film to The Maggie that I can think of in both feel and subject. Both films feature the fish out of water character changing and learning that life doesn't have to travel at such a fast pace. In fact in both films that character even ends up wearing the costume of the locals. So much so that Pusey doesn't even recognise Marshall when he eventually catches up with him at the films conclusion.

Apparently Mackendrick always saw The Maggie as flawed, I only wish he could have seen it through my eyes since for me it's nothing short of a masterpiece. So if you haven't seen this, and the weather forecast is bad for the coming weekend, then you know what to do. Believe me you'll be hard pressed to spend a better 90 minutes in front of your TV.

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