This essay is an unabashed corrective to my damning critique of Zulu (1964), which was published last year in the Wales Arts Review as part of its ‘Wales on Film’ series. It is not that I wish to withdraw or soften my attack on the historical inaccuracies of Zulu, nor its univocal racial standpoint; but rather that I feel it necessary to reappraise Baker’s reputation beyond the film that came, rather unfairly, to overshadow his entire career. I consider Stanley Baker to be one of the most important, complex and compelling figures in post-war British cinema; and the retrospective of his films currently being screened at Chapter Arts Centre provides us with a timely reminder of the originality and integrity of his work both as actor and producer.
Whereas the fame of Welsh actors Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins is burnished by their international stardom and the renown of their great stage roles, Baker’s status has diminished over recent decades. This is attributable to his outspoken commitment to making films in Britain about the lives of British people. He did take lucrative supporting roles in Hollywood epics such as Knights of the Round Table (1954) and Alexander the Great (1956), yet he chose not to become a star of American movies when the offers came in, but chose instead to fashion himself as a laconic, unsentimental, American-style anti-hero in gritty British thrillers and tough war movies.
The leading men of British cinema in the late forties and early fifties – Kenneth More, Richard Todd, Nigel Patrick, Anthony Steel and even Dirk Bogarde – seem, to our contemporary eyes, somewhat anaemic and genteel in their portrayals of stiff-upper-lip officer types and Rattiganesque repressed middle-class professionals, especially when compared to the searing emotional intensity of their American contemporaries Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and James Dean. Stanley Baker was an exception to this British tradition, his performances had some of the vigour of Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster – bringing his boxer’s physicality to his fight scenes, such as his spectacular scrap with Patrick McGoohan in Cy Enfield’s Hell Drivers (1957). Like the early method actors, Baker projected a magnetic screen presence rooted in a tightly-coiled and barely suppressed aggression. More importantly, his performances were steeped in emotional truth and detailed with acute psychological insight. Baker’s acting was never showy, but his consummate technique brought nuance and depth to scripts that were often pedestrian and clichéd. The word most often used to describe his screen persona is tough, when ambiguous would be much nearer the mark. Even in his least noteworthy films, Baker appears incapable of portraying a character without dimension, often delineating contrary emotional impulses at conflict within apparently simple and uncomplicated men.
A wider study of Baker’s life and work can be found in Robert Shail’s commendably thorough and frequently incisive biography Stanley Baker: A Life in Film, which provides extensive context for understanding the value of his contribution to the British film industry. For the purposes of this essay, however, I shall concentrate on five landmark films that reflect the range and intelligence of this unique actor who never attended university or drama school, yet who nonetheless built a career that encompassed genre movies, classical dramas – including a role in Olivier’s Richard III (1955) – and art house cinema.
Baker’s big break came with the small but significant role of First Lieutenant Bennett in The Cruel Sea (1953). Bennett is a braggart and incompetent martinet who bullies the junior officers under his command, thus endangering the ship’s morale. A lesser actor might have represented this character simply as a nasty piece of work who torments his inferiors out of a motiveless malignity; whereas Baker carefully reveals how Bennett is alienated from his fellow officers, who are all from a higher social rank – we learn that before the war Bennett worked as a car salesman. It is a characterisation in which internal conflict is detailed by momentary hesitations that give way to flashes of temper, and by unpleasant smirks that vanish at any hint that he is not quite an officer and a gentleman. Bennett’s increasing sense of isolation seems to feed his underlying, neurotic self-loathing. In less than twenty minutes of screen time Baker charts the man’s eventual moral decay, up to the point at which his fellow officers are able to exploit his growing insecurity by suggesting to him that he might have an ulcer that could facilitate a medical discharge. While The Cruel Sea rightfully belongs to Jack Hawkins and Donald Sinden, who both give career-best performances in the film, Baker was able to make his mark as a wholly unlikeable yet not entirely unsympathetic character. Furthermore, Baker’s psychological portrait now strikes the modern viewer as more penetrating and nuanced than those offered by most of the cast. As Robert Shail observes shrewdly:
[Bennett] is more compelling than his fellow recruits. It is their cut glass accents and glib manners that have dated, whereas Baker’s pushy, swaggering Bennett still seems fresh and dynamic. Within twenty minutes he is out of the film, but not out of the memory.
The success of The Cruel Sea brought Baker to the attention of the Hollywood studios, who most often cast him as a heavy, in counterbalance to stars that include Alan Ladd and Robert Taylor, in American-financed movies shot in Europe. He combined these undistinguished films with leading roles in British genre pictures, typically playing villains afflicted with ethics or policemen who operated without them. Crucially, Baker began key, long-term creative partnerships with American directors Cy Enfield and Joseph Losey, who had fled the U.S. in the early fifties to escape the McCarthyite witch hunts, to forge a character-type that was new to British cinema – driven yet urbane, tough but also vulnerable, uneducated though clearly intelligent, outwardly calm and still but struggling to suppress a welter of sexual and violent urges that lurk within. Enfield’s Hell Drivers saw the first emergence of this type – an early progenitor of the working-class characters played by the likes of Albert Finney, Michael Caine and Terence Stamp in the sixties – but its culmination came in two films that saw Baker’s name appear above the title for the first time, Hell is a City (1960) and The Criminal (1960).
In the former, Baker plays Harry Martineau, a work-obsessed, stop-at-nothing detective tracking a multiple murderer across the moors and blighted urban landscapes of the north of England. Hell is a City unfolds at breakneck pace under the efficient direction of Val Guest, accompanied by a jazz-inflected score by Stanley Black, so that it feels very much like an American film noir. Certainly Baker’s world-weary Martineau would not look out of place on the streets of New York or Chicago. In spite of its noiresque atmosphere, the film remains quintessentially British, given a strong sense of place by Arthur Grant’s stark black and white cinematography. Hell is a City is ostensibly an entertainment but it has the distinction of documenting aspects of working-class life in the industrial heartland of England, in contrast to the Home Counties or period settings of most British films at that time. If we overlook the enduring, though politically dubious, ‘classic’ status that still clings to Zulu; we might recognise that Stanley Baker’s greatest achievement was to combine a dynamic American film aesthetic with an urgent desire to tell stories, with a British contemporary and urban context, about the lives of working class people and their fierce struggles for economic survival. He did this not as a polemicist or social historian but as an artist.
Baker’s artistry can be observed in small, almost imperceptible details that illuminate the inner life of his characters. In one scene in Hell is a City, Martineau and his wife snipe at each other in a well-worn routine of gradual marital breakdown. As the wife, played by Maxine Audley, places a conciliatory arm around the chair on which Martineau sits, Baker turns his head away from her slightly, takes her fingers in his hand and traces them gently over his lips. It is a moment of tender vulnerability that reveals the genuine affection the character feels for his wife, before suddenly the argument flares up again into loud and bitter recrimination. Baker’s performances are distinguished not by quotable snippets of dialogue, nor by the striking of glamorous attitudes, but by small reveals such as this executed with a refined screen-acting technique.
Another telling moment from Baker’s oeuvre was highlighted in a talk given by film historian Tony Earnshaw at the opening night of the Chapter Arts retrospective. It is a brief and quiet little scene amid the thunderous explosions and numerous chase sequences of The Guns of Navarone (1961), during which Baker reveals the back story of his character Brown, a veteran of the Spanish civil war otherwise known as the ‘Butcher of Barcelona’. Brown has been selected as a member of an elite commando unit tasked with a highly dangerous mission behind enemy lines. He has been chosen because of his ability to kill Germans up close and quietly. During the mission to Navarone, however, the unit leader Malory, played by Gregory Peck, notes that Brown hesitates before dispatching a sentry on patrol. In the scene in question, Brown explains that he has been killing Germans for over six years and has grown thoroughly sick of war. Baker is in his element, as Earnshaw describes, in this role of ‘an experienced soldier who is vulnerable underneath his tough exterior.’ What makes the scene so effective is the restraint shown by Baker in revealing the result of so much killing on Brown’s soul. His voice is soft and his eyes appear to ache with exhaustion at seeing so much death. Brown asks for no pity from Malory, and gets none, he is simply resigned to having paid such a high price for fighting Nazis for so long, and is ultimately killed by the enemy following a final, fatal hesitation at close quarters.
The role is a small but important one, for The Guns of Navarone is much more than a wartime tale of daring-do, as it is often described in Christmas editions of the Radio Times. It is an intelligent action movie, scripted by Carl Foreman who also wrote High Noon (1952), in which the moral dilemmas of battlefield decisions, and their consequences, are integral to the plot. Each member of the commando unit – which also includes David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, James Darren and Irene Papas – face their own ethical conundrum of how to execute their mission without losing too much of their humanity, and yet the deep sadness that dulls the ruthlessness of Brown seems to linger in the mind more than the others.
Baker’s star power grew throughout the sixties, especially after Zulu became a huge box-office hit. As the producer of that film, Baker was able to secure a degree of control over his career, and become a major player in the British film industry. In 1967 he starred in and produced Robbery, a fast-paced heist movie based on the real-life Great Train Robbery of 1963. Baker plays Paul Clifton, a criminal mastermind who drives around London in a silver-painted Rolls Royce and lives in a mansion in the stockbroker-belt. His performance is perhaps his most tightly controlled, it could even be described as minimalist in approach. Paul Clifton is not your typical East End gangster, he does not have a cockney accent but speaks in a quiet, almost class-less tone, even with his associates. He raises his voice only once in the film, in an argument with his wife, again the conflict between professional dedication and a settled domestic life being irreconcilable for one of Baker’s anti-heroes. Clifton prefers to suggest the possibility of physical threat than deploy actual violence to get his own way – we never see him raise his hand in anger. Baker emphasises Clifton’s meticulous attention to detail and thoroughness of preparation rather than his criminality. In Robbery the focus remains fixed on the process of the crime rather than its moral implications. As such, the film mirrors the growing cynicism and amorality of the late sixties – Baker was to produce, uncredited, The Italian Job a year later.
Robbery is the archetypal British gangster movie that established a template for TV shows such as The Sweeney, and films including; Face (1997) Sexy Beast (2000) and The Bank Job (2008). It is best remembered now for its celebrated opening car-chase, after Steve McQueen saw the film he recruited its director Peter Yates for his classic Bullitt (1968). Yet whereas the British gangster film quickly descended into lairy stereotypes of cockney geezers and blowsy tarts, the acting in Robbery is coolly matter-of-fact and is all the more convincing for being so. Paul Clifton is portrayed not so much as a brutal criminal but rather as a ruthless businessman who is conducting a high-risk venture; and like all successful businessmen he avoids his comeuppance and escapes with all the money. One only has to observe the awfulness of Burton’s turn as Vic Dakin in Villain (1971), replete with an excruciating cockney accent and lurid pop-psychology oedipal fixation, to appreciate the value of Baker’s immeasurably more subtle and surprising depiction of criminality.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of Baker’s acting career came with Accident (1967), which was directed by Joseph Losey from a script by Harold Pinter. Baker was cast against type as Charley, a media-friendly Oxford don who masks a brutal and darkly manipulative misanthropy beneath a veneer of cultured sophistication. After spending the best part of two decades playing lorry drivers, gangsters and other assorted heavies – albeit doing so with intelligence and nuance – Baker might have appeared, to many, as ill-suited for the role of a public intellectual, and yet his performance in Accident is arguably the most complex and satisfying of his entire career. As one would expect from Pinter, the film’s dialogue is elliptical, elusive in meaning and redolent with threat. Baker excels in conveying the dark recesses of Charley’s mind, his violence is psychological and his weapons are words. The highlights of the film are his scenes with Dirk Bogarde, who plays the lead role of Stephen. The two actors were known to actively dislike each other from their previous experiences together on the film Campbell’s Kingdom (1957), but their mutual antagonism only serves to heighten the mood of sexual tension and societal breakdown. Baker received the most enthusiastic reviews of his career for Accident. In his biography, Robert Shail quotes Alexander Walker, declaring in the Evening Standard: ‘I predict that Accident will do for Stanley Baker what The Servant did for Bogarde.’
Sadly, that was not to happen for Baker. In a bid to bolster the British film industry he led a number of failed business ventures that included an abortive attempt to purchase Shepperton Studios and a disastrous pop music festival. After the stock market crash in 1973 Baker was nearly bankrupted and had to make a series of bad films, most of them in Europe, to earn enough cash to support a payroll of over one hundred people. These poor, late films did considerable damage to his artistic reputation, but say a great deal about his business ethics.
Happily, Baker was able to turn to television to deliver two great final performances before his untimely death, aged forty-eight, in 1976. As De Flores, in a BBC production of the Jacobean revenge drama The Changeling, Baker is all stillness and suitably brooding menace. His delivery of blank verse is expert, no doubt he learned much during his two years at Birmingham Rep in the 1940s working with the likes of Peter Brook and Paul Schofield. His most personal role came with a BBC adaptation of How Green Was My Valley, in which his portrayal of Gwilym Morgan brims with quiet dignity and moral strength.
The key to understanding Baker’s greatness as an actor might lie in the contradictions of his own personality. He was a proud Welshman who spent most of his life outside his beloved Wales in search of worldly success. He was a lifelong socialist who prided himself on his entrepreneurial skills, and who privately educated his daughters in English schools. He loved American cinema but preferred instead to make films in Britain because he feared he would miss his home too much. He was a complex man who well understood that every human being is comprised of their own individual set of contrary impulses and desires. Which is why in Browning’s famous words, ‘Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things. The honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist.’ Stanley Baker knew, as an actor, that how we choose to navigate our internal contradictions defines who we are. Very few navigate them as well as he did.
The Stanley Baker Retrospective continues at Chapter Arts Centre with Sea Fury, The Man Who Finally Died and Accident until September 2, 2014.
Stanley Baker: A Life in Film by Robert Shail is published by the University of Wales Press.