Possibly the most brilliantly titled series in Pacific Film Archive history, Tea and Larceny: Classic British Crime Films imports 15 peppy, charismatic movies full of mayhem, murder, betrayal, depravity and occasional references to language and customs that Americans may find unfamiliar.
Do not be daunted. It's just like our noir, except more class-conscious, and instead of "flashlight" they say "torch."
The milieu of these films is damp, dark and exceedingly polite, except when exceedingly impolite. To wit: the graciousness with which Robert Newton's character addresses his wife's American lover in Obsession (1949), even while chaining the fellow to a wall and filling a bathtub with acid by which to dissolve his body. Or when Nigel Patrick's character slaps Carole Landis' around in Noose (1948) and says, "Pardon my manners."
British etiquette may at first befuddle American spectators. But the rules do tend to declare themselves. As No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) suggests, the proper response to "You've been drinking, haven't you?" is "I don't have to drink to want you." As Footsteps in the Fog (1955) suggests, the proper action for a housemaid to take upon discovering that her employer has murdered his wife is to demand a promotion. The hair-pulling, dress-ripping girlfight ("I'll teach you to call me a rotten fat cow!") that erupts near the end of It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) is a regrettable lapse, although not unfathomable given the tense situation -- namely, harboring a former-lover fugitive.
In general it is wise to beware of amiable, pipe-smoking Scotland Yard superintendents.
And it is always useful to know the local lingo. To that end, here are ten terms and definitions intended to accelerate your acclimation.
And Bob's your uncle?: No one really knows what the hell this means, although it is often said to have arisen from the popular critique of an historic occasion of political nepotism. Usually used to cap off a given set of instructions, as an alternative to "there you have it" or "you're all set." Are you, though?
Duckie (also Ducks): a term of endearment, although, in the context of British crime films, often used with irony and menace.
Knucksie: a set of brass knuckles. Also, the nickname of black-marketeer Sugiani (Joseph Calleia) in Noose, who enjoys using them on women.
Noose: "That's a rope, with a loop and a slip-knot," as one guy says in Noose. "Here's to it," says another, hoisting his tea.
Mucking about: Idling, wasting time
Snorkel: Standard scuba-diving equipment. Also, murder weapon (The Snorkel, 1955).
Spiv: An industrious petty criminal, often smartly dressed, sometimes with something to sell at a dubiously low price. Memorable examples include the perversely Catholic sociopath Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) in Brighton Rock (1947); the friendly neighborhood malefactor Bar Gorman (Nigel Patrick) in Noose; the clammy hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) in Night and the City (1950); various in It Always Rains on Sunday. As film theorist Peter Wollen has explained, "The crucial difference between the spiv -- a flashy black-marketeer -- and the classic gangster was the degree of sympathy the spiv attracted among audiences weary of wartime and post-war shortages: black-marketeers may have been outside the law, but they performed an obvious public service."
Take the can back: To be reprimanded, take the rap
Tea and Larceny: Classic British Crime Films runs through October 31, 2009, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and information, visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.