Obituary: Charles Crichton

Tom Vallance
Wednesday 15 September 1999 23:02 BST

THE FILM director Charles Crichton made the first of the legendary cycle of British films that became known as the Ealing comedies, Hue and Cry, and one of the finest of those to follow, The Lavender Hill Mob. He also had the unique distinction of returning to films after a 23-year absence to make, at the age of 78, one of the most successful comedies of recent times, A Fish Called Wanda.

The perennially pipe-smoking Crichton served a long apprenticeship in the British cinema, mainly as an editor, before his first directorial assignment. Born in 1910 in Wallasey, he was educated at Oxford and entered films in 1932 after meeting Zoltan Korda, who offered him a position with London Films as an assistant editor. His first film credit was Men of Tomorrow (1932), an admired study of university life co-directed by Zoltan Korda and Leontine Sagan, the German director.

The film was produced by Alexander Korda, and Crichton followed this by co-editing other Korda productions, including the comedy Cash (1933) featuring a young Robert Donat, a musical, The Girl From Maxim's (1933), starring Frances Day, and the film credited with achieving Britain's breakthrough into the American market, The Private Lives of Henry VIII (1933). Crichton told the writer Brian McFarlane that at first he found Alexander Korda a remote and formidable figure until he was working on the epic science- fiction tale Things To Come (1936) and Korda told him he was unhappy with the editing of a sequence in which London was under attack from the air.

It was a scene full of frantic action and Korda wanted people to be standing still in shocked confusion. "But the director didn't shoot such a scene," Crichton told him, to which Korda replied, "You are a bloody fool, Charlie! You take the bits before he has said `Action!' and you take the bits after he has said `Cut!' and you put them together and you make a marvellous sequence." Crichton related,

From the moment I was called a bloody fool, I knew that my job was safe! I was a member of the Korda team. But what was more important was that I was beginning to learn that a script is not the Bible, it is not a blueprint that must be followed precisely, word for word, to the very last detail.

Other Korda films he edited included Elephant Boy (1937) and The Thief of Baghdad (1940), then Crichton joined Alberto Cavalcanti, a leader of the British documentary film movement, to edit the propaganda shorts The Young Veterans and Yellow Caesar (both 1941). Because of his involvement with propaganda, Crichton was not called up for war service, and moved with Cavalcanti to Ealing Studios, where he edited, with Compton Bennett, Charles Frend's The Big Blockade (1941), about the use of economic warfare, then served as both editor and associate producer on Nine Men (1943), Harry Watt's gripping saga of nine soldiers stranded in the African desert.

"In those days it never entered my mind that I might direct," said Crichton. "Suddenly I heard my assistant in the cutting room had been elevated to that noble position! What about me? Michael Balcon said, `Why not? All right, go off and do something.' " Crichton's experience with semi-documentaries was put to use with his first film as a director, For Those In Peril (1944), a vigorously exciting story of the air-sea rescue services. One of the film's script-writers was T.E.B. "Tibby" Clarke, who was to play a major part in creating the Ealing comedy as a genre.

Painted Boats (1945) was another semi-documentary, a gentle piece about the bargees on Britain's canals. "We were trying to say there was a future," said Crichton. "I don't remember much more than that, except that when the doodlebugs were exploding all over London we were peacefully making this gentle, moving picture some 60 miles away in the heart of Buckinghamshire." Dead of Night (1945), a portmanteau film consisting of five ghost stories, had four directors, but Crichton's section, a comic tale scripted by Clarke from a story by H.G. Wells, is the weakest in an otherwise brilliant film.

His next work, Hue and Cry (1947), was, however, an undisputed triumph for both writer and director:

One day the producer Henry Cornelius said, "Wouldn't it be marvellous to see shots of hundreds of young kids charging through the bombed ruins of London?" Tibby Clarke overheard the remark, took it up and invented an impressive story which would have its climax in these rushing hordes which Cornelius had imagined. Tibby, Cornelius and I worked closely together on the screenplay. That was the admirable practice at Ealing in those days.

The story they concocted, about a group of youths who discover that a gang has been using the pages of their favourite magazine to communicate robbery plans, appealed to the studio head Michael Balcon but he considered it too risky and unconventional to merit a large budget.

Clarke wrote,

We managed all the same to entice two big-name actors into our cast: Alastair Sim, magnificently overplaying a timid writer of boys' stories who loathed and feared his readers, and Jack Warner as the jovial master criminal. Our leading boy Harry Fowler had been selling newspapers a year or so earlier; his companions were recruited from the labour exchange and the "heavies" from an all-in wrestling consortium. Charlie Crichton handled this blend of contrasting talents with admirable patience and much skill; his use of London's blitz ruins, soon to be cleared, designedly gave a certain historical value to our picture.

None of those involved with the film expected it to be the hit it was, and it remains today one of the most joyous of the Ealing cycle it started.

Crichton's next film was a sober tale of resistance workers in Belgium, Against the Wind (1948), a pessimistic tale that was not too popular, partly because the comedian Jack Warner was cast as the treacherous villain. "In Hue and Cry his villainy was a joke," said Crichton, "but in this the audience would not believe that their beloved Jack was a two-faced sewer rat. It destroyed their belief." Crichton's editing skills were put into play once more when he was asked to look at Alexander Mackendrick's first film, Whisky Galore (1948), which Balcon was unhappy with.

"They had an inexperienced editor," said Crichton, "and I said to Balcon, `This is a cutting-room mishmash.' Balcon said, `OK, recut it,' which I did, checking up with Sandy all the time. The final result was the brilliant picture Sandy and his producer had envisaged all the time." Crichton's Dance Hall (1950), though unsatisfying as screen drama, is of sociological interest today in its depiction of a time when young people went to the local palais de danse once a week seeking romance.

It was followed by one of Crichton's most popular films, The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). Clarke wrote,

Being by nature an optimist I never wrote a screenplay without envisaging the coming film as the best thing of its kind ever made. Any disappointment I felt when the end product fell short of that fantasy was tempered by the inward knowledge that I had set it an impossible target. But I sat with enraptured astonishment through the first showing of The Lavender Hill Mob, for I saw that Charlie Crichton had this time made a better film than the one projected months ago in my own mental viewing theatre.

Starring Alec Guinness as a mild bank clerk who steals a million pounds in gold and with the aid of a souvenir manufacturer, Stanley Holloway, smuggles it out of the country melted into statuettes of the Eiffel Tower, the film won the British Academy Award as best film of the year. "Holloway and Guinness worked wonderfully together," said Crichton. "Their styles were completely different but they made a perfect duet."

Crichton was loaned to the Rank Organisation to direct Hunted (1952), the touching story of the relationship between a six-year-old boy (Jon Whiteley) and a killer on the run (Dirk Bogarde). Crichton successfully captured the rapport between the two - Bogarde in fact tried to adopt the boy after shooting finished. The final Crichton-Clarke collaboration for Ealing, The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), about a group of villagers who decide to run their own railway line after British Rail closes it down, was less distinguished than its predecessors, its chief appeal being to railway enthusiasts.

Crichton's next film demonstrated that he could handle sentiment as well as comedy. The story, based on fact, of the poignant battle between a boy's real mother and his foster-parents after the mother, thought dead in the war, is found to be alive, The Divided Heart (1954) was one of his greatest successes. Subsequent films, including the comedies Law and Disorder (1958) and The Battle of the Sexes (1959) and the thrillers Floods of Fear (1958) and He Who Rides a Tiger (1965) were efficient rather than distinguished.

Crichton's career suffered a setback in 1963 when he was replaced as director of Birdman of Alcatraz after a dispute with its producer-star Burt Lancaster. From 1965 until 1968 he concentrated on television, directing many episodes for the classic series Danger Man and The Avengers, as well as episodes of The Adventures of Black Beauty, Space: 1999 and Dick Turpin. He also worked for Video Arts, a company specialising in making training films.

One of the firm's founders was John Cleese, who in 1983 first mentioned to Crichton his idea for a film about a barrister. Four years later his idea had evolved into A Fish Called Wanda, the story of a barrister who becomes involved in the bank robbery scheme of a seductive confidence trickster (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her boyfriend (Kevin Kline). "We had a week of rehearsals and then a gap of two weeks in which to incorporate any new ideas which had been thrown up and to polish the script," said Crichton. "I think this is the ideal way to work, with everybody contributing their special talents and feeling they are part of the film." A Fish Called Wanda was released in 1988, bringing an Oscar for Kevin Kline and a nomination as best director of the year for Crichton.

Tom Vallance

Charles Crichton, film director: born Wallasey, Cheshire 6 August 1910; married 1936 Vera Harman-Mills (two sons; marriage dissolved), 1962 Nadine Haze; died London 14 September 1999.

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