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Blu-Ray Review - THE SMALL WORLD OF SAMMY LEE (1963)

A strip club compere attempts to gather the funds necessary to avoid the wrath of the bookie he owes a considerable sum to.






Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Ken Hughes

Starring: Anthony Newley, Julia Foster, Robert Stephens, Wilfrid Brambell, Warren Mitchell, Roy Kinnear, Derek Nimmo



I can't help think if the movie had been set in Montmartre rather than Soho, it would have been far better received. The critics of the time may have overlooked The World of Sammy Lee, but hopefully a new audience will rediscover this under-rated Brit noir gem.



Hot on the heels of their excellent restoration of Basil Dearden's 1951 Pool of London, Studiocanal present an overdue blu-ray release of another forgotten mid twentieth century slice of British noir in Ken Hughes' 1963 The Small World of Sammy Lee.

Sammy Lee (singer-songwriter Anthony Newley) is a showman. His whole life seems to be a show. A second-rate comedian, he scrapes a living introducing embarrassingly cheesy acts at a Soho strip club, entertaining the leering male guests he secretly despises. His real name is Sammy Leeman, changed presumably to avoid anti-semitism; when we meet him first he's lost a small fortune at an all-night card game - "I thought you Jews were lucky!" a rival card-player guffaws.



We follow Sammy out into the early London morning, trucks hosing vomit and curry off the pavements, as he immediately sets about digging himself into further trouble by placing a large bet on a horse. Of course, the nag fails to deliver, and Sammy finds himself in debt to a vicious local gangster, Connor, to the tune of £300, a considerable sum for 1963.

Having given Sammy several chances in the past, Connor sends a pair of heavies round to his strip club to collect payment. Sammy uses his slippery charm to buy himself five hours to raise the cash. Failure to do so will have lethal consequences; earlier we saw a previous victim of Connor's, his face permanently scarred by the mark of a blade.

The film then proceeds to follow Sammy as he races against the clock to somehow gather the cash, running through the Soho streets meeting various contacts, pulling off impromptu business deals on the fly.



Set in the multicultural melting pot of London, the film stops at several points to comment on identity. When we meet Sammy's brother (Warren Mitchell), he couldn't be more different from his sibling, the family name 'Leeman' proudly adorning the front of his kosher butcher shop. It's fascinating to see Jewish actor Mitchell deliver such a heavily Yiddish inflected performance here, as he would later find fame playing TV's Alf Garnett, a cartoonish bigot prone to anti-semitic rants who would be adapted for American audiences as Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker. Later, when Sammy discovers he can make a quick buck if he can deliver some marijuana to one of his many dodgy contacts, he goes straight to a Jamaican friend, who promptly gives Sammy a telling off for his stereotyping of West Indians.

Sammy's monetary quest makes for a tense and gripping watch, and the film always lets us know just how much money he still needs to raise, though some of his transactions are so complex it's difficult to keep track of whether the deals make sense or not.



Writer-director Ken Hughes adapts his own stage play here and opens out the setting to take in the seedy streets of sixties Soho. It reminded me a lot of Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm in how we follow our protagonist from one side of the street to the other and back again, popping into various locales - the strip club, Sammy's flat, a variety of businesses, some legit, some not so much - for quick, desperate interactions.

Kenny Graham's jazz score adds to the ticking clock atmosphere, while cameraman Wolfgang Suschitsky's black and white tracking shots through busy London streets resemble a British take on the French New Wave. I can't help think if the movie had been set in Montmartre rather than Soho, it would have been far better received. The critics of the time may have overlooked The World of Sammy Lee, but hopefully a new audience will rediscover this under-rated Brit noir gem.

Extras:

Interviews with actress Julia Foster and Get Carter director Mike Hodges, and a locations featurette hosted by Richard Dacre.

The Small World of Sammy Lee is released on blu-ray November 14th by Studiocanal.




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