How times change. The title of this 1963 Michael Winner film comes from the first part of the postcode for London’s Notting Hill, later a trendy and desirable slice of leafy urban life for multi-millionaires. Back in the early Sixties, ‘West 11’ was a seedy dump, full of dingy, cheap bedsit apartments rented out by sour landladies to down-on-their-luck tenants.
One such resident is Joe Beckett, played by Alfred Lynch. Having moved to London to get away from his family, he lives hand-to-mouth, meandering from one low-paid and dreary job to another. It’s only after hours that he comes to life, enjoying the London jazz scene with the alcohol, parties and glamorous women that go with it. Though he sustains a tempestuous relationship with naive young Ilsa (Kathleen Breck, whose acting career was sadly short-lived), his life is in sufficient disarray for him to be recruited by the wayward Colonel Dyce (Eric Portman) into committing the perfect murder, enticed by the promise of riches.
‘West 11’ boasts an incredible cast of top British talent. Alfred Lynch, who was a familiar face on British television for many years, is a fine lead actor, and perhaps a better finished product would have propelled his steady career to dizzier heights. Diana Dors, Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, is in typically seductive form as Eric Portman’s assistant, and he supplies an excellent charming manipulator – a rogue from the old school. There’s also a small but memorable character part for Finlay Currie, whose extensive film career incorporated playing Magwich in David Lean’s masterful ‘Great Expectations’. Patrick Wymark (Cromwell in ‘Witchfinder General’) turns up as a Catholic priest who tries to keep young Joe on the right path, and Brian Wilde (‘Porridge’ and ‘Last of the Summer Wine’) is in unusually unpleasant form as a racist street preacher. Character actress Kathleen Harrison plays Joe’s mother, and there’s an uncredited part as a young thug for David Hemmings, a few years before ‘Blow Up’ put him on the map.
There are two other aspects of the production that are noteworthy. Stanley Black’s sleazy jazz score and Otto Heller’s superb cinematography add enormously to the success of the film. On the downside, ‘West 11’ doesn’t quite cohere into a single satisfying story. It partially attempts the kitchen sink/social realism route of ‘This Sporting Life’, released the same year, but without fully committing. We get plenty of unironed shirts, but nothing in the way of social commentary. It also seems to be a tentative retelling of Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, though that storyline is confined to the final third of the film. Caught between two minds, ‘West 11’ takes its time to amble through Joe Beckett’s unremarkable life without ever fully settling on a theme. The short running time, atmospheric locations and lugubrious face of Alfred Lynch mean that the final cut isn’t a failure, but it does fall short of becoming the classic it perhaps had the potential to be.
In the final analysis, ‘West 11’ is an intriguing British film that captures something of the creativity, rapid social change and danger of the Swinging Sixties, without ever quite lodging itself in the memory banks as a landmark movie of the era. There is an openly gay supporting character (prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK) to boost its bohemian credentials.
Writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall were basking in the success of the previous year’s ‘Billy Liar’, and they would collaborate again on many magical projects, not least ‘Worzel Gummidge’ starring Jon Pertwee. ‘West 11’ would not have been at the very top of either of their CVs. Director Michael Winner secured for himself much fame and fortune without ever making a film of great artistry. One of his earlier works, ‘West 11’ is, conversely, amongst the best from Winner’s canon. For audiences, it’s an interesting curiosity, most especially for fans of British acting talent from the period. The fully-restored black and white print transfers well to high definition. This Blu-ray release, which is part of Studiocanal’s ‘Vintage Classics Collection’, comes with an interview with film historian Matthew Sweet and the original theatrical trailer.
Cast: Alfred Lynch, Kathleen Breck, Eric Portman, Diana Dors, Kathleen Harrison, Finlay Currie, Patrick Wymark, Brian Wilde, David Hemmings Director: Michael Winner Writer: Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall Certificate: 15 Duration: 93 mins Released by: Studiocanal Release date: 5th July 2021 Buy ‘West 11’