The Small World of Sammy Lee

Written by Paolo Sedazzari
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It’s funny how the passage of time can completely change the public’s perception of art. Today, it’s almost impossible to conceive how the first album by the Velvet Underground, and the films Performance and Wicker Man were not heralded as masterpieces on release. But back then they were either criticized or ignored.

It’s the same with The Small World of Sammy Lee. Anthony Newley’s celebrity status as a song and dance man could not save the film from a box office disaster when released in 1962. With no TV screenings or video product for decades, the film languished in obscurity, until the BFI chose to restore and release it in 2016. Now more and more people are starting to realise that this film is a Bona Fide Masterpiece.

Watching the film today works as a trip into the sleazy shadowland of early 60s Soho - an arena of racing tips in seedy caffs and smoky strip joints.  The films begins with tracking shots of the empty streets of Soho at dawn, past the restaurants, coffee bars and sleaze joints. Those who are not sound asleep are licking their wounds from a hard day’s night. This is how we find Sammy Lee (Anthony Newley) in a gambling den where he has just added to his already substantial debts.

To add to his challenges, a young woman Patsy (Julia Foster) has come off the coach from Bradford and turned up at the club where Sammy comperes, to take him up on his offer to get her a job in showbiz. A promise he is not able to keep.

The plot of the Small World of Sammy Lee is now a gangster film cliché, though it was fresh back then - Sammy has five hours to come up with 300 large (£6,982 in today’s money) – or else.

The simplicity of the plot belies the complex wheeling and dealing Sammy Lee makes in order to come up with the dosh that will save him from a savage razoring. Sammy is your archetypal ducker and diver, using London patois that feels authentic, as he runs from one location to the next, always taking time to say hello to familiar locals. He buys up gold watches and sells them to use the money to make a bigger profit by selling American Whisky. As the clocks ticks closer to the deadline, the stress shows in Newley’s posture and mannerisms.

There is a parade of pleasing cameos that will be familiar faces to the seasoned British viewer. Warren Mitchell, before becoming Alf Garnett, plays the beleaguered brother and Whitechapel shop-keeper who is first on Sammy’s hit list. Wilfred Brambell, familiar to millions as Albert Steptoe plays Harry - Sammy’s run around adoring gopher. “It’s lovely watching you, guv. Like a sort of ballet dancer.”

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Derek Nimmo has a scene in a nightclub, fussing over the décor as he prepares for a big opening night. Lynda Baron (Nurse Gladys Emmanuel in Open All Hours) plays a bathing stripper and Shakespearean actor Robert Stephens is a revelation, cast against type, as the leering strip club manager.

Particularly interesting is the interplay between the two debt collecting gangsters, played by Kenneth J. Warren and Clive Colin Bowler. Bowler is the young cold hearted hoodlum decked out in a three button Italian, who relishes violence, while Warren is older and still with an ounce of empathy and compassion.

Behind the camera, there are many impressive contributions  – the jazz soundtrack by Kenny Graham, the evocative cinematography of Wolfgang Suschitzsky – but stand out among all the stand outs is the art direction of  Seamus Flannery. This attention to detail creates the atmosphere and serves as a time machine into that era.

A well designed set can communicate so much about the characters without words. For instance Sammy’s Lee flat adorned with posters, including one of Sammy Lee headlining the Scala in TonyPandy, tells the story of a failed comedian who’s career is in free fall.

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The film’s art director, Seamus Flannery, tends to come across as rather arrogant in interviews, but he has every right to be. Aside from Sammy Lee – he was also the art director on Up the Junction, Repulsion and Wicker Man. The Art Direction is one of the reasons this film is so powerful and vivid and stands the test of time.

For all the talents on display, Ken Hughes is the auteur behind it all. His distinguished filmography is vast and varied - most famously he was the director of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and interestingly in 1955 he wrote and directed Joe MacBeth - the re-telling of Shakespeare’s Scottish play set in 1930s Chicago gangland.

The Small World of Sammy Lee began as a 30 minute TV play that Hughes wrote and directed. The TV production confines the action to just one room, with just one actor – Anthony Newley – as he juggles deals between phone calls. Selling to Peter to pay off Paul – with hope of making enough profit to pay off the money he owes.

The TV play was broadcast by the BBC in 1958 and was hailed as a triumph. It was picked up in the US and Mickey Rooney performed it and won an Emmy. Sadly, being shot in 1958, there are no known videos of Sammy the TV play. But I found a copy of the script for $100 on eBay.

This is how Hughes describes his character Sammy in the covering note for his TV script – “28 years old, slightly built of medium height. His dark hair, carefully groomed twice a week at Rico’s in Old Compton Street, gives him a superficial look of being attractive. But if you look closer, you will see the narrow brown eyes moving to and fro, like a man looking for a way out. His whole body moves in pattern of short nervous gestures which betray his restless thought. This is a man who has developed his instincts for self preservation until they are high-tuned, like the wires of a concert piano.” Strong aversion to work, did he know it, works harder “not working” that most laborers.

The film is a direct expansion and development on the story and themes of the TV play and yet the TV play was widely applauded by the critics while, strangely, the film was panned.

Films like Victim and Sapphire demonstrated that British Cinema in the late 50s and early 60s was capable of raising sociological issues without being condescending and preachy. The Small World of Sammy Lee manages the same, aside from the exploitation of strippers, the films has a segment that deals with racism. In his quest to raise some cash fast, inevitably, Sammy Lee is advised by shady Eddie that selling drugs is the answer. “You get hold of some gear, and I’ll stake you…none of yer horse manure, the real gear, mind.”

So Sammy visits his jazz musician friend, played by Harry Baird, while he’s rehearsing. His friend is indignant – “When someone says, like, “who’s got all the pot?” You come running to the spades. and I don’t have no weed man. I don’t even smoke cigarettes you know and man…..(slams piano)… pardon me if resent it.”

The film has become a record of the old Soho and it’s warmly re-assuring that the Soho of today is still recognisable in this film. But if they remade The Small World of Sammy Lee in the modern era, it would be full of lame Americanized slang and he’d launch a GoFundMe page with videos on Instagram and TikTok. In other words - it would be complete arse. But celebrating this film is no foray into cosy nostalgia. Like Gerard Kersh’s book Night and The City it paints a most unappealing picture of London lbefore the sixties starting swinging properly - a city that is cold, seedy and callous.

Anthony Newley is unforgettable in a scene near the end where, jacking in his job as strip joint compere, her turns on his audience.  “Well, gentlemen, and I use the word loosely…I’ve never looked down on such a collection of pathetic-looking morons in my life..Shall I tell you something for nothing? These birds back here, they hate you. You make them sick.”

So the time has come to elevate The Small World of Sammy Lee to the status of a cinematic masterpiece. That’s because every aspect of the film, every contribution, is inspired and of the highest standard.

You can presently watch the film on Amazon, but my own preference is to watch it in high definition Blu-Ray.

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 Look you’re not talking to one of yer two-bob punters now you know. I shall have to talk to Mr. Connor about this? He wants to talk to me?
No I can’t talk to him now. I can’t hear a thing. I said I can’t hear a thing. [Hangs up]

Read 1876 times Last modified on Monday, 21 November 2022 10:04
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Paolo Sedazzari

Paolo Sedazzari

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