It may have taken more than ten years for this one to come to the big screen, but it is a must-see for anyone with a liking for quirky humour, or film noir. It may be low budget, but there’s not a Lottery penny in sight. If low budget means you can end up with these production values on screen, then the UK Film Council needs to move over. They may have lost the plot, but the team behind Room 36 definitely have not. This is a stylish, nourish, production of a kind that can give British cinema a shot in the arm by restoring some much needed self-confidence. We Brits can make films at low budget levels that tell good stories well. Producer/Director Jim Groom and his team have just done it.
Director: Jim Groom
Country of origin: UK
Length: 90 mins
Format (DV, 35mm, etc): 35mm
Genre: Noir Thriller
It’s a thoroughly enjoyable tale of a dirty tricks department operation that goes wrong through a combination of mistaken identity and accidental misfortune. It rattles along at cracking pace through the grubby world of the Midlothian Hotel, a seedy establishment in Paddington, where a political defector is about to change the course of history by exchanging a see-and-tell film for quite a lot of cash. Unknown to her, the agent she is to meet at the hotel for the exchange, is as interested in the cash as she is. Throw in a used lingerie travelling salesman, a visiting escort girl, a maid who’s prepared to do a little more than change sheets for her guests and finally, add a mistake over room numbers and… Well, the body count begins to rise significantly.
Room 36 is packed with performances that are rich and believable. Paul Herzberg, more frequently seen on television than meaty cinema roles, takes a welcome lead billing as Connor, the hit man determined to do well out of his mission. Bringing the right blend of uncertainty teamed with determination, to the chaotic series of events that unfold in the Midlothian, Mr Cool Killer seems almost unaffected by disaster. He remains cool dude and looks well on it. This contrasts well with Portia Booroff’s perhaps slightly tougher challenge in the female lead role. She packs a punchy performance as confident, self-assured defecting MP Helen Woods, who takes every setback the seedy hotel throws in her direction almost in her stride. She is still poised, controlled and certainly attractive, even when her well groomed-look goes slightly frazzled as it would, after bludgeoning a man to death.
Room 36 also has some powerful supporting roles, creating gem of a world-weary silver screen performance from Brian Murphy, presiding as manager over the seedy Midlothian. George has seen it all, but if they pay up and don’t disturb the other guests, why worry? So he doesn’t. Amazingly, all Brian Murphy’s scenes were later inserts in the film, specially written to bring the running time up, but they achieve far more than merely making time. They enrich the film by making George the dominant figure at reception. He becomes the concierge at the centre of the action, turning the Midlothian Hotel with its flickering electric signs into an extra character. They had to invent him. You could not have a Midlothian Hotel without him; part of the peeling fabric of the place.
There’s another performance bright-spot in the measured but anxious gravitas which the late Norman Mitchell brings to his role as a powerful senior politician eager to avoid a fall. His brand of dramatic presence is now missed and our screens are poorer because of it. Frank Scantori is thoroughly almost disgustingly believable, as the man who not only travels in ladies underwear but likes to be familiar with the product off the road. John Cater, better known for TV appearances, fills the big screen equally well, as the man with the dog in the pub for whom opportunity knocks in shape of a briefcase. His payoff for sneaking it away is bound to be terminal, but his is a role that is, shall we say, stylishly executed.
On the distaff side, Darby Hawker’s maid is almost as world-weary as her manager George, but we sense relief for her, is on the way. Of course, that too is bound to be terminal. The switchboard antics of the hotel telephonist bring an air of amusing decadence to the whole proceeding, preparing us neatly for Nicola Branson’s entrance as the unfortunate escort girl just trying to do her job, but discovers too late, she has the wrong job.
Delicious in black and white, David Read’s cinematography makes excellent creative use of the full tonal values of monochrome both to tell a story well and to enrich it. Spot colour provides effective highlighting used sparingly in the right context. But it is the pre-eminence of the darker, shadier world away from revealing light that he captures so successfully, creating a broody ambience, that sense of foreboding and unease that a film like this must create to succeed in the noir genre, after which it can play with our senses, bringing some small relief by putting a few absurdities into sharp focus.
Pacing a film like this is critical and Jim Groom’s direction rattles it along, lingering just long enough over the informative detail before moving on to the next surprise. He is aided by an effective orchestral score from Scott Benzie, subtle enough to sustain delicate moods without intrusion, but with power and drive to build and sustain the dramatic moments. There is also atmosphere by design within the frame. Having, after a missed late train, been forced to spend a night in a similar establishment close to King’s Cross, I can certainly vouch for the atmosphere of Midlothian decay, even without the benefit of smellavision. The signal design touches are all there, right down to the reel-to-reel musak player that must be cajoled into non-stop, day-long action each morning. I am convinced I recognised the tune.
It is not only a travesty of fate, but also a deeply cruel tragedy, that so many unforeseen hindrances conspired sequentially, to keep this one from a deserving audience. Imagine losing your vital film lab to the flames just before the shoot, forcing you to find a new lab sympathetic to a film that was shooting mainly on plastic. Then, Kodak go and terminate your precious Eastman black and white stock, because monochrome sales have dropped off the scale in favour of colour. Forced to scour studios and labs worldwide to replenish your precious stock you finally manage to locate some, in LA. Then, private finance runs out; you discover your film is under-running for a feature; and sadly, one of your cast passes away. That’s why it took ten years for this little beaut to reach the screen. Like all independents, it needs the best possible opening weekend to get out there. Don’t let this one get away.
We need films like this to remind us that we can still make really good features that are not concessions made to an international market that dilute all sense of propriety a home audience can acknowledge in a British film. It is a welcome and refreshing change to have a British film that plays well on its own merits and is not a parody of someone else’s. It is a pastiche of a noir film certainly, but determinedly British and works well as the dark background against which our sense of humour can come into play. Although it is visually and dramatically satisfying, this sort of success in essence, comes from the writing. Humour this subtle is the most difficult of all to write well, but there is a very creative triumvirate of writers behind this film. Director and co-producer Jim Groom, producer Tim Dennison and DoP David Read can all take credit for this one, bringing individual creative flair to enrich the writing process. Well boys, it worked, and worked well. When will we see the next one? Not too long next time, eh?