Soho, that once seedy web of central London streets, plays host to Ken Hughes’ enjoyable early sixties film about a desperate man who needs to make quick use of his legs and even faster use of his tongue if he is to dig himself out of the trouble he’s in.
Following a disastrous all night poker session and a failed attempt to recoup his loses on the horses, Sammy Lee (Anthony Newley) discovers that the mob are demanding payment of his debts in full, and he is able to negotiate just five hours to come up with the money he owes if he is to end the day intact. Between shifts as compere at the tawdry Peepshow nightclub, Sammy races through the London streets from one contact to the next, pushing a dizzying array of deals in every corner of his manor in a bid to hustle the money he needs. To complicate matters is the arrival of his sometime object of affection Patsy (Julia Foster), off the train from Bradford having been spun a yarn about her boyfriend’s glittering career in London. She quickly discovers that Sammy can’t get her the job she hoped for, but that the club manager might have a less savory use for her.
The central performances are superb. Lovable rogue Sammy Lee is a great creation and Hackney born Newley, who famously began his showbiz career as the Artful Dodger and ended it as a Vegas crooner, is a natural in the role. His Sammy is sympathetic and ultimately almost heroic, despite his willingness to take advantage of those who support him,with his treatment of Patsy being particularly appalling. Given little by way of exposition, Foster beautifully conveys a cocktail of love, disappointment, fear, and horror at the situation in which she unwittingly finds herself. Peppered throughout the film are an array of actors who in the years to come would become stalwarts of British comedy: Wilfred Brambell (Steptoe & Son), Warren Mitchell (Till Death Do Us Part), Lynda Baron (Open All Hours), and Roy Kinnear. Characters are generally rich and entertaining, not least the bickering heavies played by Kenneth J. Warren and Clive Colin Bowler, their constant antagonism bemoaning a lowering of etiquette amongst London’s criminal class.
Ken Hughes is best known, to the extent that he is remembered at all, for the kids film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). The Small World… is adapted from his own TV play Sammy, which was broadcast by the BBC in March 1958. In that drama, Sammy (Anthony Newley again) is alone in the confines of his flat, frantically using his phone to make deals and raise the cash. In a moment of particular tension in the film, Sammy is at home when an unseen neighbor begins playing his drums. The beats crashing through the ceiling reflect and exacerbate his mounting stress. It is a great use of the diegetic sounds that abound in the crammed city quarters, and beautifully complements Kenny Graham’s jazz soundtrack.
The Small World of Sammy Lee opens on Soho in the early hours, a cleaning truck hosing the down refuse from the night before. Accompanied by the splendidly melancholic score, the camera leisurely guides through its still empty streets. Soho is a draw for those on the fringes of mainstream society. Not just the strippers working at The Peepshow, or the prostitute welcoming johns to the apartment down Sammy’s hall, but those set apart by birth, be it through race or sexuality. Restaurant frontages speak to the Italians, Indians and Chinese who live and work in the area. Black men eke a living playing jazz in the clubs, and the protagonist himself, as we discover when he pays a visit to his brother’s Whitechapel store, is Jewish. Sadly Derek Nimmo’s gay nightclub assistant plays to the comedic conventions of the era, but the film proves more remarkable for its time in its representation of race. Having made a stereotypical assumption about black musicians that might pass without question in a much later film than this one, our hero is given a righteous dressing down.
As Lee runs from one meeting to the next, cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky takes his camera back into the bustling streets and alleyways, and the crisp black and white location shots from half a century ago provide one the film’s great pleasures. With day turning to evening the tone changes and what begins as a witty crime caper turns darker, Suschitzky investing seedy pool halls and basement rehearsal spaces with the chiaroscuro of classic noir. As night falls, potentially happy endings crumble and Sammy makes his final stand on a grim patch of bombed out wasteland. The main light source comes in the form of an empty billboard standing above the scene, projecting bright white like an empty cinema screen penetrating the darkness. For years, this empty space might have represented The Small World of Sammy Lee itself, prior to its beautiful restoration and home release by StudioCanal in 2016. It’s a welcome return, because The Small World… is a classic of sixties London cinema.