Oh, the Swinging Sixties, full of fun, glamour and excitement. The clubs! The girls! The boys! The streets paved with boutiques! In 1963 we are moving well into the decade of fab, just three years before Time Magazine hailed London as The Swinging City, but the The Small World of Sammy Lee, written and directed by Ken Hughes, depicts a different reality.
The film tracks a day in the life of Sammy Lee, the title character incredibly well played by Anthony Newley. Sammy is a small-time gambler and crook, who earns a living working as a compere in a strip club, hustling to keep his head above water and make ends meet.
On this fateful day, he finds himself in debt to the tune of £300 to Connor, a vicious bookie who employs musclemen to see to those who default on what they owe. Sammy has until 7 pm to come up with the cash. When he greets a friend Bernie in the cafe, and the camera lingers on a fresh scar on Bernie’s face, we don’t need to be told that this is what will happen to Sammy if he doesn’t cough up.
What follows is a breakneck rush to raise the money, a masterclass in the art of wheeling and dealing, ducking and diving, buying goods here to sell there, offloading dodgy gear, boxes of watches, American whisky, whatever he can shift. Sammy is constantly adding up and subtracting, thinking on his feet. He is always consulting his little black book, which contains names not of girls but of suppliers, fences, contacts on the wrong side of the law.
Dawn over the streets of Soho
The film begins with a great sequence shot by cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzy (who died only a couple of years ago, aged 104). It’s early morning, and Soho is just waking up.
We follow the camera through the familiar streets, empty at this early hour apart from street cleaners, shop and cafe owners, preparing for the day ahead. In a dizzying whirl, up and down streets, round corners, we swoop through Peter Street, Berwick Street, past the Isola Bella restaurant in Frith Street with The Modern Hairdressers next door just in view, past the Heaven and Hell and 2i’s coffee bars in Old Compton Street.
We take in the Cameo Moulin cinema on Great Windmill Street, showing ‘Naked As Naked Intended’ and ‘Call Girl Business’, and the renowned ‘We Never Closed’ Windmill Theatre.
Some of the audience might be a little thrown by the appearance of Cecil Gee, the pioneering menswear shop, next door to a club named The Peepshow, the sleazy dive where Sammy works. Both these establishments are part of the set built in Shepperton Studios, and fit their environment just nicely.
The Peepshow could hardly be less glamorous. The girls parade around a tiny stage, watched by an audience of glum-looking men, who have to make do with less than full-on nudity, because of licensing regulations. The dancers have to ensure that the removal of the last garment coincides exactly with the stage lighting going off and the curtain coming down.
They present a series of scenes, historical re-enactments, exotic locations — ‘The Garden of Allah’ — kitted out in ludicrous costumes. The most jarring moment is when they circle the stage singing a lack-lustre version of Unforgettable, the classic song made famous by Nat King Cole and recorded by such luminaries as Cleo Laine, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington and Aretha Franklin. Unforgivable.
It’s a tough life for these girls. Backstage, they squabble about missing make-up and their working conditions. Not that they have much of a voice. The management calls them ‘slags’, and they are easily dispensable.
Towards the end of the film, when Sammy knows that his lot is up, he rails that this is the most second-rate, nasty, dirty little show in the West End.
And this is the show that Sammy’s love interest, Patsy, played by Julia Foster, wants to join. Of course she has a right to make a choice, but such a dismal one as this reminds us yet again that the Sixties didn’t swing for all women.
We are encouraged to share Sammy’s tenderness towards Patsy, but it’s hard not to be impatient with her dismissal of ordinary jobs like waiting on tables (rather like Sammy’s disdain for bus drivers and bank clerks) and indeed with her attachment to Sammy. She wants to play the role of the understanding girlfriend, telling him that he’s more of a man than anyone she had ever met, but in other ways, just a child.
Oh dear. Patsy is more than a little naive. When she makes her debut at the Peepshow she’s queen of the stage and very pleased with herself, but just look at the gimlet eyes of the other girls. She’ll have to keep an eye on more than her Max Factor.
Sammy’s protectiveness of Patsy — he gives her money to go home to Bradford — adds another layer to our perception of him, as does his relationship with his brother Lou (Warren Mitchell).
Desperate to raise the cash, Sammy takes a cab to Lou’s deli in the East End. Lou’s delight in seeing his ‘bad boy’ brother sours when he realises he’s only after money. The boys’ references to their parents are touching. Their father told them always to get up in the morning and do a day’s work, advice which Lou has taken to heart, running his business, keeping the local community supplied with sauerkraut, frankfurters, pickled herring and the like.
Sammy asks Lou to do him this favour for Mama, God rest her soul, and Lou is actually about to go to the bank (it’s not 3pm yet) when his wife appears and tells him not to.
What makes Sammy not run?
At the end of the day, Sammy hasn’t got the cash. He refuses to run, but then makes one flailing attempt to leave, going to Victoria Coach Station to join Patsy on the Bradford coach. He gets to the ticket office too late, and we see the bus pull out, with a frantic Patsy gesticulating through the back window.
This scene is a reversal of the end of Billy Liar, where Julie Christie leaves Bradford on the train to London, smiling wryly at Billy, who, unable to bring himself to get on the train, watches helplessly from the platform.
As the coach leaves, Sammy turns to meet his fate in the form of Connor’s two henchmen, one a young psychopathic type, the other an old-school villain from the days when they all wore black hats slightly to one side. They take him to some waste ground, and in a brutal end to the film, kick him half to death. The older heavy, though, holds back from delivering a scar, and drops the wodge of money that Sammy had managed to accumulate on his inert body. Sammy manages to get up and limps off into the distance, cash in hand.
In spite of the note of optimism and the possibility of a new start for Sammy, this is a dark and vicious scene, its mood and atmosphere similar to that of Get Carter (1971). The director of that film, Mike Hodges, had been impressed by The Small World of Sammy Lee, and asked Wolfgang Suschitzy to be his director of photography.
The film has two main pleasures. The first is Anthony Newley’s superb performance. His face is endlessly mobile, with doubt, despair, hope flickering across it, and his hands are constantly moving nervily as he assesses his chances, plans the next move.
The other great pleasure is immersing oneself in the London of the early 1960s. The street scenes in the opening shot and throughout the action as Sammy hares from place to place, running through the markets that are now bustling with life and the clubs and snooker halls and shops and offices where he hopes to do a deal, are mesmerising. It’s hard not to make a comparison with the sanitised feel of today’s Soho.
The way people talk adds to the period feel. One of Lou’s customers buys a quarter pound of brisket, thinly sliced, for three shillings, a phrase which seems like code to some contemporary audiences. The same could be said of the reference to Sammy bouncing another one of his rubber cheques. To understand the significance of banks closing at 3pm, a frequently asserted warning, you have to realise that before the arrival of ATMs (in 1967, inaugurated by Reg Varney) it could be very hard to get your hands on ready cash.
Rather like the stripteases in Sammy’s club, the film dangles promises that aren’t delivered. Story-lines are floated and left floating, and we are denied the satisfaction of seeing ends neatly tied up. This is a strength of the movie, adding to its downbeat realistic tone.
As soon as Joan, the good-natured prostitute who lives across the landing, hears that Sammy is in money trouble, she reaches into her handbag to give him some cash. Sammy won’t hear of it. Much to Joan’s indignation, he indicates that in any case she can’t have the kind of money he needs. ‘Do you think I’m some short-time brass?’ she asks him, an assessment which we all might make, judging by the series of sheepish men who pop in and out of her room in next to no time.
But maybe Joan is raking it in. Residents of Soho at that time speak of girls having a hundred visitors a day… who knows? Joan has a nice leather coat, a decent haircut and a line in statement necklaces. Sammy’s problems could have been over, and indeed, until the end of the film, we almost expect her to pop up, handbag at the ready, to save the day.
Then there’s the spiky relationship between Sammy and Milly, his sister-in-law. The antagonism between them is apparent from the moment she walks into the deli, and Lou’s anguished query as to why they can’t get on signals the idea to everyone except him that his wife and his brother have history. Or at the very least, Sammy knows something about Milly’s life, something about her not behaving like a wife. There’s another story here, but we’re not going to get it.
Also, we want to know about Sammy’s cat, Oscar, whose name was a joke between director Hughes and Newley, an acknowledgement of the latter’s ambition to be known as a dramatic actor. Oscar may also be a tribute to Holly Golightly’s cat in Breakfast atTiffany’s. Holly, like Sammy, inhabits a murky world, and they both share their lives with a cat who comes and goes, disdainful of the humans’ need for them. Holly’s cat finds a permanent home, but what happened to Oscar? Was he waiting for Sammy, if indeed Sammy ever went home?