Ninety Degrees in the Shade snuck out onto DVD courtesy of Odeon Entertainment just over a week ago. The release was effectively unheralded and would have passed many by unless they’d happened to scour various e-tailers for pre-orders or were a member of Odeon’s mailing list. And yet even if they had come across the title, it’s a reasonable expectation to presume that the film would be unfamiliar. According to the entry on director Jirí Weiss in the Directors in British and Irish Cinema reference book, Ninety Degrees in the Shade never received a theatrical showing in the UK, despite winning an award at the Berlin Film Festival and earning a Golden Globe nomination. Furthermore, the BFI’s database has no record of a television screening and as such this disc may very well represent its debut in whichever form or format in this country.
All of which may seem a little strange for a film that is being released under Odeon’s ‘Best of British’ strand and also happens to feature a quartet of familiar British faces: Ann Heywood, James Booth, Donald Wolfit and Ann Todd. What separates Ninety Degrees in the Shade from standard UK fare of the period, however, is that it was a very rare Anglo-Czech co-production. Raymond Stross (husband of Heywood) produced in conjunction with Barrandov Film Studios, the result being an English-language venture intended for the international market but with a predominantly Czechoslovakian crew. It’s tempting to assume that Weiss was brought in as director owing to his work in the UK during the war years producing a number of propaganda shorts for various companies. (His Before the Raid is available as an extra on Panamint Cinema’s The True Story of Lili Marlene disc, whilst Eternal Prague can be viewed on British Pathé’s website.) As a result he would have been perfectly capable in handling the various British leads and the Czech technicians. Indeed, behind the camera the only notable Brits are editor Russell Lloyd and, more significantly, writer David Mercer. Otherwise it is Weiss’ own countrymen who occupy each of the key roles, from composer through to production designer.
Mercer was working from a treatment by Weiss and Jirí Mucha, another fascinating figure who had been, variously, a BBC war correspondent, a writer, a political prisoner and, according to a publication from last year, an agent for Czechoslovakia’s secret police. The screenplay, Mercer’s first for the cinema, admittedly doesn’t overtly tie in thematically with the playwright’s other work, although there are hints of mental illness (a common subject matter for Mercer) and a possible autobiographical connection given that he had married (and subsequently divorced) a Czech woman in the 1950s. What he definitely brings to Ninety Degrees in the Shade, however, is a dramatist’s ear for the highly-charged character-driven scene. Essentially the film is a three-hander detailing the relationship between Heywood’s shop assistant and the two men she comes into contact with as the running time plays out: Booth, the married man with whom she has been having an affair (and who also happens to be her manager), and Rudolf Hrusínský, the auditor with problems at home, who is carrying out a stocktake at the store.
Whilst the temptation may be to therefore consider Ninety Degrees in the Shade as a piece of kitchen sink drama, albeit one transposed to Czechoslovakia, the reality is something else altogether. For starters the film is, to all intents and purposes, very much a Czech film; the setting is Prague and all of the character’s names are Czech (Heywood plays Alena, Booth plays Vorell, and so on), the only difference being that everyone is speaking English. Moreover, the presence of Hrusínský - a mainstay in the country’s cinema from Capricious Summer and The Cremator to My Sweet Little Village and The Elementary School - prompts connections with his other roles. It’s hard not to recall that unhinged central performance in The Cremator, for example, as we watch him essay this stern, uptight man who barely connects with his son and puts up with an alcoholic wife (despite being teetotal himself). He puts value in order, yet everything that immediately surrounds him is anything but.
Furthering this sense of mounting chaos - as well as emphasising even more that this is very much a Czechoslovakian film - are the photography by Bedrich Batka and score by Ludek Hulan. Batka is best known for his justly acclaimed work on Marketa Lazarová, a film with which Ninety Degrees in the Shade shares its ’scope framing. Of course modern day Prague is far removed from the medieval world of Marketa Lazarová, yet Batka nonetheless brings some of that same visual poetry as he queasily swoops around a beer hall or captures Heywood in intense close-up. The latter is especially significant as it once again points up just how removed Ninety Degrees in the Shade is from kitchen sink melodrama; there’s clearly something more heightened going on here than fundamental realist methods. Indeed, Hulan’s jazz score is wonderfully off-kilter and unlike anything you would hear in a British film from the time (with the concession that Roman Polanski employed another Eastern European jazz musician, Krzysztof Komeda, for two of his British productions). Hulan may not have worked much in the cinema, but his soundtrack nonetheless prompts connections with other Czech and Eastern European film scores, not those of John Addison, say, or Johnny Dankworth.
It’s important to stress, however, that the British actors fit into this overall sensibility exceptionally well. Ann Todd is practically unrecognisable from her earlier performances for David Lean, say, or Alfred Hitchcock and seems to relish the much grittier role that the part of Hrusinsky’s mother allows for. Donald Wolfit, by contrast, is simply one of those character actors who could seemingly be accommodated in whatever film from whichever country. Here he’s simply wonderful, injecting some incidental fun into proceedings and obviously having a whale of a time. But ultimately Ninety Degrees in the Shade is Anne Heywood’s picture, the film hinging on both her character and her performance. Importantly she plays it straight, allowing Alena to appear as normal as possible, even though things clearly aren’t as simple as she imagined - and neither is her handle on them. The opening sequence presents her almost as prey, an element which is repeated again and again in subsequent: ogled by various men as she makes her way from sunbathing on the river into work, including Hrusínský. She’s a victim but doesn’t quite know it, attracting the attention of these men and submitting to one of them, Booth’s married man who doesn’t care as much as he makes out. As Ninety Degrees in the Shade progresses the realisation becomes all the more apparent. Yet Heywood never relies on easy melodramatics or the overwrought. She tries to keep her poise, which only makes the astonishingly downbeat ending all the effective.
One film I haven’t mentioned so far is Weiss’ earlier Romeo, Juliet and Darkness from 1962. That film was as impossible to see as Ninety Degrees in the Shade prior to its release on DVD by Second Run in 2007. The Second Run connection is important, not only because there is so much crossover between this film and their releases - as well as the other Weiss, they’ve also put out the already mentioned Marketa Lazarová and The Cremator, plus Larks on a String which also featured Hrusínský - but also because anyone who has sampled their output over the years should consider themselves absolutely the right audience for this film. Furthermore, it’s great that another small UK-based company is putting upon themselves to explore Eastern European cinema. I suspect that Odeon picked up Ninety Degrees in the Shade owing to its British connection (and they’re aiming for that side of the market, no doubt, thanks to its placement in their ‘Best of British’ strand), but hopefully it will lead to other similar releases.
Odeon are releasing Ninety Degrees in the Shade as a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 0. Happily the presentation is very good and at least the equal of Second Run’s best presented Czechoslovakian releases. The original ’scope framing is present and correct - and anamorphically enhanced - and taken from a print in excellent condition with little in the way of dirt or damage. Admittedly the whites can seem a little overbearing at times, but then such claims could also be made of Second Run’s Czech-devoted discs which would suggest that such qualities are inherent in the materials supplied rather than any kind of overzealous approach during the transfer process. Importantly the level of detail is very strong both in close-ups and long shot. The soundtrack is similarly impressive, here presenting the original mono in DD2.0 format. Hulan’s score comes across strongly and the dialogue remains audible and clean throughout. Clearly certain actors were dubbed and certain scenes were recorded in post-production, whilst the echo-like effects during Heywood and Booth’s flashbacks was undoubtedly intentional. No untoward hiss or buzz was apparent and neither were any audio drop-outs. (Optional subtitles for the hard of hearing are not available.) Extras are limited to trailers for other Odeon releases which is slightly unfortunate, although the bottom line is simply that Ninety Degrees in the Shade is finally available having been next to impossible to see for so many years and as such any complaints would ultimately be churlish.
Calling all Second Run fans... Jiri Weiss' rare 1965 film finally makes it to DVD courtesy of Odeon.