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Alan Clarke's The Firm is one of the very best British hooligan/gangster films ever made.
Originally made for television in 1989 the 70 minute film crackles with a ferocious energy thanks to both director Alan Clarke's visual style and to Gary Oldman's ruthless performance as a family / businessman who hasn't let go of his immature hooligan roots.
Oldman plays Clive Bissell aka Bexie [or Bexy] a man whose only real goal is to represent England's fighting fans by leading a group of blue collar hooligans to the European football championships. In order to determine which group will go to Europe his 'firm' and two other 'firms' decide to challenge each other to a series of street fights, which seem to have no discernable rules.
Bexie is a bully who has his sights so focused on his goal that even his young son's accident with a Stanley knife razor blade or his wife's threats to leave him won't prevent him from preparing for and winning the fight. His dreams of fighting are only hardened by his rival a; an contemptuous businessman who cuts the face of a babyfaced young black man and a blonde psycho who goes by the name Yeti
Bexie finds a way to tap into his team's masculine ego so that even the young innocent ones become grizzled as time goes on; and a murder that occures towards the end only invigorates their enthusiasm.
From an aesthetic standpoint The Firm combines British kitchen sink realism with Scorsese's violent comraderie among guys with a bit of "Clockwork Orange" nihilism thown in for kicks. However, to those familiar with England in the 1980's the film has definite political overtones; namely as a comment on the attitudes of Margaret Thatcher's Britain. But viewers don't have to know this to get the general points of the film nor to enjoy it's viceral power.
Elephant is one of the most intriquingly violent films ever made.
It begins with a man walking around an empty building looking for someone. When he finds him he pulls out a gun, shoots him and quickly walks away. The next scene is of a man getting shot in a gas station. Over the next 35 minutes there are 16 more murders all quick, all violent, done by characters we never get to know who do the shootings with discernable motivation.
Director Clarke doesn't moralize, empathize or investigate the murders. We simply follow the assassin, witness the murder and then get a long look at each lifeless body as it lays in an awkward position. In this way the film is like a document or even a snuff film. [And, yes, the film was a direct influence on Gus Van Sant's film 'Elephant', which has a similar disinterested quality to it].
Shot in 16mm, utilizing a wide angle lens and long single take shots with a steadicam the film captures a floating dreamlike quality. Adding to this tone each of the buildings are deserted the parking lots and alleys are quiet and few people are seen or heard.
Elephant has an existential quality to it especially if you watch it completely out of context, which almost everyone who sees it today will do. If you listen to the commentary track by Danny Boyle you get the context and it quite literally changes the film by making it that much more vital and disturbing.
In both The Firm and Elephant Clarke takes an unflinching look at mob violence and murder. Some could make the argument that Clarke makes his films so well that there is an exhilirating - almost appealing - nature to the violence. But if you get to the core of these films they are not self conscious [like Tarantino's films] nor are they violent for the sake of violence [like many Hollywood films]. And although they do have an ironic sense of humor they are disturbing works that comment upon a time and a place that to some degree is still with us - albeit in different parts of the world.
This DVD was released in a box set with many other films a couple years back. But if you missed it the first time around I would recommend picking up this disc as it is much more affordable.
Both films are presented in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Clarke liked to shoot his films on high-speed 16mm and he often used natural light. Both films utilize the steadycam and were shot by John Ward a master steadycam DP. The film's each reveal a good amount of grain which gives them a visual vitality that is achieved not through the editing but through the individual shots.
Audio on both films is in mono and they sound good. The Firm is dialogue driven but since it was made for television every word can be heard fine. The problem may be in trying to decypher some of the English pronunciation. I would consider using subtitles if that is the case. Elephant has virtually no dialogue but the audio track is full of natural sounds, foot steps and the sounds of gunfire; all of which give the film a chilling realism.
On The Firm there is only a few photo stills. On Elephant there is an excellent commentary track, which is done as an interview by Mark Kermode of producer Danny Boyle and a five minute appreciation of Clarke and of the film. The commentary track reveals much about the film [which was shot in Northern Ireland] and about Clarke's working methods. The interviews on the short documentary include Clarke's daughter, Gary Oldman, David Hare and a few others. It is not as informative as one would wish.
The Firm and Elephant are both strong BBC television films from the 1980's that deal with violence in the most direct, unflinching way. The Firm has excellent acting and a strong story, Elephant is a conceptual masterpiece. It's great that these two films are on the same disc as they are a fine introduction to the work of Alan Clarke - who unfortunately did not live long enough to see his fame reach beyond England. The extras are modest and the DVD's look and sound very good.