Do you remember Ken Hughes? No? Let me jog your memory. Ken Hughes is the director behind such British films as The Trials of Oscar Wilde, Cromwell, and easily his most famous work, the children’s film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. With the odd exceptions like Chitty and Cromwell, chances are that you never came across the name Ken Hughes before. This has certainly happened to me, but it was likely that some of Hughes’ filmography would eventually end up in the hands of StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics line-up, a label dedicated to restoring highly praised and somewhat overlooked British films from directors who are not known to the public eye. Which one did they pick to start with Hughes? It wasn’t Chitty, nor Hughes’ co-directed project, Casino Royale. It was actually a hybrid movie, a mix between 60’s British kitchen sink realism and a gangster movie that whilst well regarded, it fell under the public radar – welcome to the Small World of Sammy Lee.
Set in London’s Soho district, Sammy Lee (Anthony Newley) is a smooth talking compère working in a seedy strip-club. Sammy’s life choices is something that he would consider troublesome, his boss talks down to him, he has significant troubles forming a friendship with his sister-in-law, and a teenage newcomer, Patsy (Julia Foster), Sammy’s previous lover from Bradford who decides to take up stripping at his place of work, which just reminds him how miserable his life truly is. After sorely losing at a game of poker, Sammy becomes debt-ridden, and he asks the bookies to leave him alone for just five hours to gather £300 to pay off the debt. What follows is Sammy frantically zipping across the town collecting cash before the time runs out.
The Small World of Sammy Lee can be seen as a forerunner for the sturdy British 60’s/70’s gangster movies such as Get Carter and Alfie, which funnily enough, the cinematographer who shot Sammy Lee, is the same person who photographed Get Carter, Wolfgang Suschitzky. So Sammy Lee’s atmosphere is raw, stylish and slick in the world of the strip club, but is also rough, gritty and restless in the outside world. But strangely enough, the film is at its most tense when Sammy is in the strip club, no doubt – not when he is frantically dotting across London. Cigarette smoke fills the air, groups of workers and strippers pass to and fro backstage, and the only place where Sammy gets a break from the intimidating atmosphere is in his dressing room, which sometimes gets invaded by the bookies. You sense that this place of work terrifies him down to the core, he hates introducing women as slabs of meat, he hates the men watching each performance thinking that they have such perverted minds, but he still goes along with it – he is a witness, but he is also a sore loser since he gives up without retaliating so easily.
What’s remarkable about Hughes’ script is that there is not only is there a tiny thread of suspense running all the way throughout, but Hughes’ peppers in a witty and wry sense of humour throughout. These act as short bursts of air for the audience when Sammy is getting down to business. The way that character interaction is handled is very loose, but also engaging right from the start. This fleshes out each individual on board, the conversations flow, the body language is natural as it can be in this situation. And what’s more commendable is that many of these characters are played by recognisable faces in the world of British film and television. The most notable examples of this are Wilfrid Brambell of Steptoe and Son fame as Harry, Sammy’s naïve right-hand man and Roy Kinnear as a strict owner who has just opened a new bar whom Sammy hustles to help fix his financial situation. Many of these actors are given something to do, rather than given merely a silent extra role and they only add to the experience, offering great one scene punch-ups.
But it would be unfair not to at least talk about Anthony Newley in the lead role. Newley is the person who carries the film. From those he is friends with, to the strangers he dashes past against the clock – he is a very distant and lonely figure, all while he bursts out with cynical wisecracks that only round him up as a completely three-dimensional character. You feel sympathetic towards him, that his life could have been so much more. And his anger and anxiety finally collide when he has to stand up for himself in one last monologue so well-written, that even Sammy’s hardened boss is left squirming in the corner. But despite everyone seeming so brutish towards Sammy at first glance, many are still humanised other than what most social realist tales would have you believe – the bookies, Patsy, even the boss to a certain degree, are still only people, with many getting a fine grasp of their identity and what they mean to this elaborate little world. Whatever the case, The Small World of Sammy Lee is not a film that should be missed out upon, and it is a shame that it was overlooked for a number of years, but with this new Blu-Ray from StudioCanal, it will finally get the attention that it sorely deserves.