Whisky Galore! (Alexander Mackendrick / United Kingdom, 1949):
(Tight Little Island)

The rocky, overcast coastal setting offers Alexander Mackendrick rich satirical opportunities (Flaherty, Grierson) before he even gets to the depleting shortage of alcohol. The isolated Scottish island of Todday has "few and simple pleasures," chief among them the whisky that enlivens the weather-beaten folk. A dark cloud parks over it when wartime rationing leaves the community with "nothing but water." The Home Guard captain (Basil Radford) is a British prig who spends most of his time setting up useless military road blocks and fretting about "anarchy," his sergeant (Bruce Seton) is more interested in necking with the local sex kitten (Joan Greenwood, provocatively fusing brogue and purr). The gloom dissipates when a steamship with thousands of cases of the precious liquid in its belly is wrecked offshore; the locals gather around to seize the cargo, but have to delay their mission for the Sabbath. (They watch desolated in pious black from the hills: "Oh hell, we better be getting to church.") The infusion of smuggled liquor brings color back to the island’s cheeks -- it puts hair on the chest of the eunuch (Gordon Jackson), revives the dying hermit (James Anderson), even Jackson’s severe mother (Jean Cadell) joins the festivities after a little lubrication. Compton MacKenzie’s comedy is tailor-made for Ealing gentleness, though Mackendrick’s already evident feeling for mordant human clashes ruptures the studio’s coziness: The deep chiaroscuro of the vistas and tight interiors has a particularly baleful luster, and the final close-up of Radford’s deflated spoilsport, crushed and humiliated and cackled at, could be out of Bergman circa Sawdust and Tinsel. Its sardonicism is alien to timid Ealing pokes like Passport to Pimlico or A Run for Your Money; Norman Lear’s estimable Cold Turkey would later switch addictions and scrape off the Britishness to reveal the depths of the story’s venality. With Catherine Lacey, Wylie Watson, Gabrielle Blunt, James Robertson Justice, and John Gregson. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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