10 great last films by British directors

The last testaments of some of Britain’s finest filmmakers – from Hitchcock’s Family Plot to Derek Jarman’s Blue.

21 January 2021

By David Parkinson

Blue Sky (1994)

Charles Laughton has an unfair advantage when it comes to ‘best last features’, as he opted to return to acting and not follow-up his exceptional debut, The Night of the Hunter (1955). But most directors don’t get to choose their final film. Even having had retirement thrust upon them, the majority hope to make one more movie before the light fades.

Tony Richardson didn’t get that chance, as he died from complications from Aids in November 1991, just a few weeks before his swansong, Blue Sky, became entangled in red tape following the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures. It would remain on the shelf for 3 years before finally emerging to modest box-office business, which was boosted when Jessica Lange won the Academy Award for best actress. 

Now available for the first time on BFI Blu-ray, this paean to Cold War Hollywood classicism is set in 1962, the year in which Richardson was preparing to make the transition from the social realism of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner to the 4-time Oscar-winning playfulness of Tom Jones (1963). Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe figure heavily in the opening magazine montage, which establishes mother-of-two Carly Marshall (Lange) as a free-spirited fantasist. As the film progresses, her resistance to conformity will impact upon the career of her husband, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), a nuclear engineer in the US Army who keeps cutting her slack. 

Drawing on her own childhood memories, co-writer Rama Laurie Stagner puts a feminist slant on the woman’s picture melodramatics, which chime in with such earlier Richardson outings as A Taste of Honey (1961) and Mademoiselle (1966). Although Stagner would go on to work in television, this proved to be her sole big-screen credit. But it was the end of the line for Richardson.

To cheer Blue Sky’s return to visibility, here are 10 more directorial swansongs by major British filmmakers.

School for Scoundrels (1960)

Director: Robert Hamer

School for Scoundrels (1960)

According to David Thomson, Robert Hamer represents “the most serious miscarriage of talent in the postwar British cinema”. Always a heavy drinker, he went off the rails after producer Michael Balcon – for whom he had made such Ealing classics as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) – cancelled his adaptation of Richard Mason’s The Shadow and the Peak. 

By the time he came to this reworking of Stephen Potter’s bestselling ‘Gamesmanship’ books, Hamer was prone to binges and was fired partway through the shoot, leaving the remaining scenes to be handled by producer Hal Chester and an uncredited Cyril Frankel. The film’s battle of wits between Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) and Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas) is certainly inconsistent, but the “hard cheese” tennis match alone makes it unmissable. Hamer never directed again, although he did make script contributions to 55 Days at Peking (1963) and They All Died Laughing (1964) before his death in December 1963.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

Director: Basil Dearden

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

There’s a cruel irony that this adaptation of Anthony Armstrong’s story The Strange Case of Mr Pelham should turn on a car crash, as it was an accident on the M4 on 23 March 1971 that ensured it would be Basil Dearden’s final feature (we can discount 1974’s Mission: Monte Carlo, as it was cobbled together from episodes made for the TV series The Persuaders).

The Man Who Haunted Himself reunited Dearden with Persuaders star Roger Moore, who had approached him to make a feature that stretched him as an actor. The story of a marine technology executive who unleashes his doppelgänger after surviving a high-speed smash had previously been filmed as ‘The Case of Mr Pelham’ for Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955. But Dearden rooted it in the real world of his acclaimed ‘problem pictures’ – such as Sapphire (1959) and Victim (1961) – and Moore considered it a favourite because “it was a film I actually got to act in, rather than just being all white teeth and flippant and heroic”.

The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972)

Director: Michael Powell

The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972)
© Mark Dightam/Children's Media Foundation

An accountant who was allergic to creativity, Rank chief John Davis ensured that Michael Powell’s final feature was this Children’s Film Foundation charmer rather than his long-cherished adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe had been sounded out about designing the sets, while Jack Cardiff was ready to photograph a cast that was to have included James Mason, Mia Farrow, Topol, Frankie Howerd, Malcolm McDowell and Michael York. 

Instead, Powell had to settle for a farewell collaboration with Emeric Pressburger on the story of John Saunders (Mark Dightam), a young boy who turns yellow while riding on the underground after losing his pet mouse, Alice, at the Tower of London. Designed to teach youngsters about electricity, the picture was full of fanciful flights and sight gags. But, despite winning the Chiffy award voted for by Saturday matinee audiences, it failed to persuade the CFF board to greenlight a sequel, The Magic Umbrella.

Family Plot (1976)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Family Plot (1976)

Alfred Hitchcock had no intention of allowing this reworking of Victor Canning’s The Rainbird Pattern to be his final feature. But Barbara Harris’s wink at the camera in Family Plot’s closing shot turned out to be his parting gesture. Bruce Dern landed the role of the ditzy psychic’s boyfriend after Hitchcock had baulked at Al Pacino’s wage demands, and his chemistry with Harris provides a comic counterbalance to the menace generated by San Francisco jeweller William Devane and his accomplice, Karen Black, who run a kidnapping racket. 

Throughout the shoot, Hitchcock kept tabs on the progress being made by Ernest Lehmann on adapting Ronald Kirkbride’s espionage thriller, The Short Night – a project for which Walter Matthau, Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery were all being considered. But declining health prompted Hitch to retire in 1979.

Anti-Clock (1979)

Directors: Jane Arden and Jack Bond

Anti-Clock (1979)

Jane Arden’s fourth collaboration with Jack Bond, following Separation (1968), The Other Side of the Underneath (1972) and the short film Vibration (1974), Anti-Clock anticipates the rise of CCTV. The avowedly non-linear action centres on Joseph Sapha, a nightclub mind-reader whose suicidal tendencies qualify him for an experiment in memory manipulation, and Professor Zanof, who has been entrusted with retraining him. Making his only film appearance, Arden’s son, Sebastian Saville, took both roles and later claimed this was a treatise on his relationship with his mother. 

Recycling the live ventriloquist’s dummy routine from her provocative 1969 play Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven, Arden uses split screens to juxtapose video, 16mm and archive footage to explore a range of terrifyingly dystopian concepts. Claude Chabrol commissioned a script after declaring this “a futuristic masterpiece”. But Arden committed suicide before they could collaborate.

Comrades (1986)

Director: Bill Douglas

Comrades (1986)

Although it centres on the activism and transportation of the 6 men who formed Britain’s first workers’ collective in 1833, this epic tribute to the Tolpuddle Martyrs also revisits themes that Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas had explored in his autobiographical trilogy: My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home (1978). Having toiled for 6 years on a screenplay that adhered more to emotional truth than historical fact, Douglas cast familiar faces like James Fox, Robert Stephens and Vanessa Redgrave in aristocratic roles and lesser-known talents like Robin Soans, Keith Allen and Imelda Staunton as the villagers, while Alex Norton played the magic lanternist who symbolises the need to see things anew. 

The necessity of shooting in Dorset and Australia strained relations with producer Ismail Merchant, who departed during pre-production, while cinemas proved reluctant to screen a 3-hour slice of period realism. Sadly, the 57 year-old Douglas succumbed to cancer in 1991 after writing 3 more screenplays.

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Director: Charles Crichton

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

For 23 years, Charles Crichton must have thought that He Who Rides a Tiger (1965), starring Tom Bell and Judi Dench, was going to be his final feature. But, while collaborating on some business training shorts for the Video Arts company, John Cleese realised that the 70-something still had the potential to add to such classic Ealing comedies as Hue and Cry (1947) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). 

That said, 5 years passed between the ex-Python first mentioning the story of a prudish lawyer falling in love and becoming entangled with a bungling gang of crooks and the critics raving about one of the unlikeliest comebacks in screen history. Crichton was pipped to the Oscar for best director by Barry Levinson for Rain Man. But, despite Cleese and Crichton sharing a screenplay nomination, Crichton was later overlooked for A Fish Called Wanda’s spiritual sequel Fierce Creatures (1997).

Blue (1993)

Director: Derek Jarman

Blue (1993)

Derek Jarman first encountered International Klein Blue when he saw Yves Klein’s ‘IKB 79’ at the Tate Gallery in 1974. Klein had created his distinctive shade of ultramarine to explore an immaterial space beyond what can be seen or touched: “At first there is nothing, then there is a profound nothingness, after that a blue profundity.” 

After an Aids-related infection left him temporarily blind and capable only of experiencing blue, Jarman embarked upon a 79-minute feature in which the screen remains a swathe of static blue, while the soundtrack flits between music, sounds and the voices of Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry, John Quentin and Jarman himself delivering a literate treatise on the latter’s view of the world from the confines of a fatal illness. Simultaneously broadcast on Channel 4 and Radio 3, it provided a personal and a political testament whose aesthetic and advocatorial radicalism have remained undiminished since Jarman died, aged 52, on 19 February 1994.

Wild Side (1995)

Director: Donald Cammell

Wild Side (1995)

There are various versions of this final feature by Donald Cammell, the Scottish director who had made his debut back in 1968 co-directing Performance with Nicolas Roeg. There’s the disowned 1995 emasculation that producer Elie Cohn released after barring him from the editing room, and there’s the 2000 restoration made by co-writer (and spouse) China Kong and editor Frank Mazzola according to notes that Cammell had left before he shot himself on 24 April 1996. 

Some 20 minutes longer than its predecessor, this ‘director’s cut’ was also bowdlerised when HBO opted to trim a graphic sex scene involving Joan Chen and Anne Heche. Heche plays a banker who moonlights as a call girl and meets Chen through her money-laundering husband (Christopher Walken). Cammell told their stories through flashbacks, only for Cohn to declare the rough cut impenetrable. The critics were divided over whether the revision improved matters, but few denied Cammell’s iconoclastically bravura approach to generic convention.

Ravenous (1999)

Director: Antonia Bird

Ravenous (1999)

Antonia Bird wasn’t supposed to direct this grimly comic cannibal western by debuting screenwriter Ted Griffin. But studio interference and cast rebellion had respectively prompted the removal of Milcho Manchevski and Raja Gosnell. In their place, star Robert Carlyle insisted on summoning his partner in the newly formed 4Way production company, who had proved herself capable of handling toxic machismo in the British gangland saga Face (1997), in which Carlyle had co-starred with Ray Winstone and Damon Albarn. 

The Blur frontman was chosen to compose Ravenous’s score with Michael Nyman. Their rattlebag of sonic styles cannily complements the shifting tones of a satire on Manifest Destiny and the addictive nature of power. The story, in which Guy Pearce is sent to an 1840s California backwater for being a heroic coward, draws on the infamous Donner Party incident. Although she would executive produce Son of Babylon (2009), Bird devoted her remaining 14 years to television, which was very much cinema’s loss.