“I was plunged into the dumps for weeks after seeing Entertaining Mr. Sloane”, wrote Mrs. Edna Welthorpe of the late Joe Orton’s most famous play. She was even less fond of its follow-up: “I saw Loot with my young niece. We both fled from the theatre in horror and amazement well before the end. I could see no humour in it. Yet it is advertised widely as a rib-tickler. Surely this is wrong?”
Orton’s plays were a sensation in the 1960s, taking the fashionable satirical wit of Beyond the Fringe and Private Eye and adding an explicitly queer spin to it at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain. They enthralled some and appalled others. For all that Edna Welthorpe didn’t exist – she was a pseudonym Orton used to amuse himself – she did summarise the reaction of many theatregoers to his plays. She also puts her finger on a key issue which is left unresolved by these two fascinating adaptations of his work reissued on Blu-Ray by Studio Canal. Just how much of a “rib-tickler” is a Joe Orton adaptation supposed to be?
Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane were both released in 1970, three years after Orton was killed in a horrific murder-suicide by his lover Kenneth Halliwell. The opening credits of Entertaining Mr. Sloane include an explicit memorial: beginning in a cemetery, Orton’s proprietory credit is shown beneath a headstone inscription reading “In Loving Memory of”. Loot, on the other hand, begins in a funfair, and you can tell a lot about the difference between the two films from those contrasting openings. They are clearly both the work of the same source author, and they have some superficial similarities beyond that. (The strangest is the horrible neon yellow dustbins – did Britain really have these in the 1970s? If so, no wonder the binmen ended up going on strike) But Loot, directed by the expat Canadian Silvio Narizzano, is the fizzy, silly, bubblegum pop b-side of Douglas Hickox’s queasily funny Entertaining Mr. Sloane.
No surprise that Hickox, who went on to make Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price, focuses more on the savage side of Orton’s work. Entertaining Mr. Sloane is a darker play overall, with a plot that prefigures Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem. Peter McEnery, who had previously made his mark on the history of British queer cinema as Dirk Bogarde’s lover in Victim, plays the cocksure, mysterious Mr. Sloane who casts a spell on Beryl Reid’s lonely landlady and her high-rolling, closeted brother (Harry Andrews). All three principals are strong but Reid is extraordinary, grotesque, vulnerable and deeply tragic. On release Entertaining Mr. Sloane was criticised for lacking the subtlety of Orton’s original play, but the way that Hickox finds the Gothic inside Orton’s farce feels properly satisfying.
It also has remarkable cinematography from Wolfgang Suschitzky, a documentary-trained cameraman who is clearly having a ball being able to set up and compose his images for once. McEnery’s face is reflected through broken glass, mirrors are used to essentially show shots and reverse shots in the same frame – in quality, at least, it’s of a piece with Austin Dempster’s cinematography in Loot. As is often the case with the two films, though, they’re strong in different ways. Dempster glories in lurid, dayglo colours and introduces the film with a series of crane shots and speeded-up footage introducing the two anti-heroes, a pair of bank-robbers played by Roy Holder and the late Hywel Bennett.
The broader approach isn’t unreasonable. Loot is, after all, a broader play, moving away from the Pinteresque menace of Entertaining Mr. Sloane into pure farce territory. It also contains an unaccountably poor performance by Richard Attenborough, putting on an utterly incomprehensible ‘comedy’ accent as the police inspector closing the net on Bennett and Holder. Both the films have specially composed theme songs but Entertaining Mr. Sloane uses Georgie Fame’s title song much more tastefully. Loot keeps going back to its bouncy theme song and its embarrassingly on-the-nose lyrics, which at one point actually offer a recap of the characters and events in the movie so far.
So why, having detailed how it’s unquestionably a weaker film than Entertaining Mr. Sloane, does part of me love Loot more? Well, when it fires, it’s funnier – I particularly love Lee Remick batting away Bennett’s proposal by claiming to be “very old-fashioned – I only marry for money”. But there’s also something that still feels subversive in how the play presents itself as mainstream entertainment, something that’s only heightened by Narizzano’s knockabout direction.
Famously, Orton was commissioned to write a script for the Beatles, only to have the resulting work turned down when the group’s openly gay manager Brian Epstein detected all the homoerotic innuendo in the piece. With its speeded-up footage and Carnaby Street colours, Loot feels very much like the Joe Orton Beatles movie we never got, and its cheeky leads could fit easily into a 1960s sex comedy like Alfie or The Knack. The difference is, they’re queer – never explicitly claimed as such, but obviously so from the moment Holder’s Hal says he enjoys watching Bennett’s Dennis have sex. In the 1960s, British comedies could only deal with homosexuality through the sexless, harmless stereotypes of the Carry On films; even in the more explicit 1970s comedies such as the Confessions of… series, this didn’t improve.
Dennis and Hal, by contrast, are two likeable lads-around-town who enjoy going out on the pull and are also lovers. To the Edna Welthorpes of the world, that was just another offence in a play full of outrages. Watched now, it stands out as something genuinely unusual and fresh, a frank, upfront exploration of complex queer relationships in a story that otherwise hits all the expected marks of theatrical farce. Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane both stand up well on the level of film-making and writing craft, and they both have considerable period-piece charm. The fact that we’re rooting for Dennis to get the boy and the girl, though, still feels like it’s pointing the way to a more inclusive, exciting future.