The Sticking Place

The Devil’s Disciple

Scene, September 1965

It is typical of Alexander Mackendrick that he was dissatisfied with the costumes provided by the wardrobe department for natives taking part in his latest film, Sammy Going South.

On location in Africa, he insisted that his producer, Hal Mason, should accompany him on a tour of the local towns. Whenever he saw an African dressed in the authentic kind of dirty old clothes he wanted for his small part players, ho got an interpreter to stop the African in the streets.

The proposition was simple: the African would give Mackendrick the clothes he was wearing. Everything. Mackendrick would take the African to a shop and buy him a complete new set of replacements – plus ten shillings for his trouble.

“I’ve known him have a shirt washed twenty times before he would allow an actor to wear it in front of the cameras,” says Mason. “Only then did he think it hung properly round the neck, the way it would if it had been constantly worn.”

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Alexander Mackendrick is a film director of particular merit. He was the “star boy” at Ealing (Whisky Galore!, The Man in the White Suit, The Maggie, The Ladykillers, Mandy). He directed Sweet Smelt of Success for the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster company in America.

And when the Royal command selection committee saw the very rough uncut version of Sammy Going South they had no hesitation in choosing it as fit for Royalty.

“At a stage,” says Mason, “when you wouldn’t want it to be seen by a dog.”

In the film industry the name of Alexander Mackendrick is apt to cause reactions ranging from instinctive fear to complete adulation. Nobody denies his brilliance: quite a few actors and film businessmen will be quite happy if the brilliance is directed in any other direction but their own.

Since Sir Michael Balcon gave Mackendrick his first feature (Whisky Galore!) in 1948 he has made fewer films than almost any other director of his calibre.

Mackendrick says this is because has never needed the money enough to make the kind of “in-between” potboilers that other directors have to make while waiting for the subject they really believe in.

“I live very humbly,” he says.

This is true. But, perhaps, only half the truth. Making a film with Alexander Mackendrick is, according to several actors, something like taking part in the Arnhem drop: hell to go through but a matter of pride for the rest of one’s life.

Nobody goes through more hell than Mackendrick himself. He is the complete perfectionist. Deceptively gentle and reserved, he rules a film set in a devious, ruthless way that, says actor Cecil Parker, is apt to make most mortals feel it would be damned foolish to go on arguing with him for too long.

Mackendrick is an unbelievable fifty years old. He has the boyish face and manners of a man of thirty-five. Facts about his background are scarce, because he refuses personal publicity on all possible occasions, and will tell reporters that he is giving an interview solely because it is in his contract, to help publicise the film.

Any interviewer who tries to cross the line between the film and Mackendrick as a person will hear soon the phrase “journalists are pimps.” Before hackles rise, they will hear the follow-up, “Film makers are harlots.”

A tall dishevelled man with unruly black hair, Mackendrick was born in Boston, America, in 1912, was brought up in Glasgow and still speaks, thirty years after leaving Scotland, with a Scottish accent.

He was educated at Glasgow High School and went on to Glasgow Art School. His first job was as an advertising agency artist. It lasted ten years. In 1937 be wrote, with a cousin, a film script. It sold immediately, was completely changed by the film company and made into a film which Mackendrick refuses to identify.

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He became a scriptwriter at Pinewood. in 1937. During the war he joined the psychological warfare department (“and it’s been psychological warfare ever since,” says one actor). He was on The Blue Lamp and under Balcon’s policy of giving talent its head, was given Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore! as his first feature.

From then on his career developed into a battle. The Ruthless Perfectionist versus the Rest.

A friend tells the story that Mackendrick told him of his first two weeks in Barra, the Western Isles location for Whisky Galore! Nothing concrete had been achieved. In the middle of the night Mackendrick woke up, suffering from an asthma attack. He could hardly breathe and found he couldn’t stand.

There was no telephone in the pub so he crawled out on all fours into the street to the nearest telephone box. There he put in a reverse charge call to his wife in London.

“I’m calling to say that I’m so bad I don’t think I’ll see tomorrow,” he is said to have told his wife, “I’m dying. I’ve phoned to say goodbye.”

Mrs Mackendrick was quite blunt. “What’s the matter? It’s only a silly strip of celluloid, you know.”

The story goes that Mackendrick’s asthma disappeared immediately. He stood up in the telephone box, shaken out of his apparently psychosomatic condition. Those words – it’s only a strip of celluloid – have remained with him ever since.

By all accounts they haven’t relaxed his fanatical approach to the business of making films (and he is adamant that he is in a business, “the ice-cream business,” which may surprise those who see him as one of the most determinedly non-business-like men in the industry).

“We didn’t have one shot in Sammy Going South that was done in one take,” says a member of the crew. “Money and time are miserable matters that don’t exist for Sandy. After a dozen takes he can still see a better way to shoot the scene.”

In one shot of the film a boat berths and passengers disembark, watched by a crowd of 200 Africans.


“They’ll only be seen in long shot,” says the crewman, “yet he spent half an hour giving them all a story to act out as they embarked. He told them the reasons they were on the boat and gave them business to do on the quayside. If he’d had time he’d have done the same for the 200 Africans.”

Devotion to detail has been apparent in all Mackendrick’s films. For The Man in the White Suit he wanted a surrealistic lab machine, the one that gurgled and burbled its way through the film.

“Sandy said it had to be technically dead right,” says David Peers, who was on the production team and now runs TV Advertising, making TV commercials.

“He insisted on getting experts down to the set to tell us whether this retort would fit into this test tube and so on. It was typical of Sandy that if the experts didn’t agree with what he wanted he ignored their advice anyway.”

After countless experiments he decided to use sharkskin material with ultra violet lighting for the indestructible white suit worn by Alec Guinness.

“The man walks on a narrow edge between comedy and tragedy,” says Duncan Macrae, the Scottish actor.

“On Whisky Galore! there was one day when he went into one of his awful moods, too deep to be called in a huff. He was just not a available. Everyone was going mad. He was walking about in the rocks. The atmosphere was very strong. Then one of those terribly efficient production men started up the jeep, the very best vehicle on the island. He crashed it badly. Almost impossible to break up a jeep, but he did it. Sandy started laughing. He came out of that awful black abyss laughing like a devil.”

A former Ealing executive recalls the day that American writer William Rose announced that he was all washed up.

“Bill had just finished The Maggie and he was saying that if he was starving, if his children were laid out in the gutter, he would never make another film with Sandy. The atmosphere had got to such a state by the end of the film that they weren’t even talking through their lawyers. Bill was in absolute despair. He said he’d written himself out of ideas. We were in the Red Lion pub which is where all the Ealing films were really made. Bill said he was having bad nightmares about the whole thing. He said he’d had a nightmare the night before, about an old lady and five men who were trying to kill her. Sandy heard him. Within forty-eight hours he and Billy were working on The Ladykillers.”

Peers was production manager of The Ladykillers. First, Mackendrick toured the King’s Cross area looking for a suitable house for the gang’s headquarters. He couldn’t find one that was satisfactory, so he calmly decided to build a whole house at, the end of a cul-de-sac.

The original sum of money stolen by the crooks (Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom, Cecil Parker) was around £250,000. They posed as a group of musicians.

Sammy“Nobody else would have thought of this,” says Peers, “but the first thing Sandy said to me was that he needed real pound notes. The Bank of England refused. He said he wouldn’t make the film unless they were real notes. After two weeks he lost. But ordinary studio pound notes would not do. The art department had to design a note that would look real and not contravene the law. Then Sandy said – could you get that amount of money into the instrument cases? Any other director would have regarded it as justifiable licence – but Sandy wanted to know how much money you could get into a violin case, cello case etc. So Michael Birkett (now Lord Birkett) had to get the notes and stuff them into the music eases. It came to something like £60,000. And the script had to be changed to make that the amount stolen.”

Says Cecil Parker: “Sandy works like a horse with blinkers on. When you’re working with him you do know he knows what he’s doing. If you don’t you’re out. You can make a point but then he starts pulling at his hair arid scratching his head and that’s a sign he’s heard enough.”

For another scene in The Ladykillers, Mackendrick wanted a high-angled shot to show the crooks’ cars moving in the streets like chessmen. The local fire brigade provided a telescopic ladder, Mackendrick was strapped in and shot into the air.

He told Peers unenthusiastically he thought it was “quite good.” Then he spotted a gasometer. That was the spot. The gas board were extremely reluctant to let men with cameras go up on the tank but Peers fought manfully for permission. Suffering from vertigo he stood nervously on the curved top of the tank while Mackendrick walked nonchalantly to the edge and looked down.

“It’s no good,” he said. When it was pointed out that this was what he had wanted, he said it should have been obvious that the shot was no good. He decided instead to have a seventy-foot rostrum built.

Peers did not build the rostrum. Instead he brought back the fire engine. Mackendrick agreed, eventually, that it would do, after all.

These anecdotes illustrate Mackendrick, the ultra-perfectionist, carrying detail a little further than most film people consider necessary, or digestible. The fact is that, apart from Sweet Smell of Success which enjoyed great critical acclaim but made little money, all his films have been box office successes.

Few of them were shot in the scheduled time, but they all show the unmistakable stamp of his unique talent. They all carry Mackendrick’s style, racy, compellingly visual, superb performances which never allowed to interfere with the story.

“All actors need reassurance where a director is concerned,” says Mackendrick. Their method seeking it follows a fairly definite pattern. A trial of strength not unlike a chess game.

“The director represents a wall. They put a hand out to feel if the wall is there, and whether it stands firm. If it does, they relax because they know where they are and can be sure of themselves. But if the wall gives way then you’ve got nothing but trouble all round.”

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At other times Mackendrick compares the role of the director to that of the nozzle of a water pump, compressing and channeling the various pressures which go to make a film. He makes a point of differentiating between the hired director and the producer-director who creates a complete film from the very beginning, and says that no-one is really interested in hired directors, anyway.

To get him to talk this much about his work is something of a triumph. He subscribes to Freudian theories on many aspects of life and while many of his sentences are left to hang in the air, he leaves the concrete impression that to talk about why you do a thing will destroy your ability to do it.

Mackendrick is, however, no high brow. At various stages in his career he has directed TV commercials for a company run by his second wife. If he has had his ructions in the industry they were not because the front office wanted to make money. They were due to the fact that once he is sold on a story, he is going to make his film and nobody else’s.

“The director represents the story,” he says. “That is the justification for the bullying and the egotism. The director has to believe completely in the story and make everything else fit in.”

Without dragging up the distasteful past, it seems easy to think of the reasons for the troubles Mackendrick has had in his career. He was hired to direct The Devil’s Disciple for Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. He rehearsed the cast for a month and shot for two weeks.

“On one Saturday morning I was phoned up and told to come to London to meet my new director,” says actress Janette Scott, “It was Guy Hamilton. No reason was ever given for Sandy leaving.”

The atmosphere on this film was, according to Miss Scott, fairly tense.

“I’d become an ardent fan of Sandy’s after seeing Sweet Smell of Success,” she says, “I left the cinema with my knees trembling. I saw it three times. I couldn’t believe my luck when I got the part in Devil’s Disciple and Sandy was to direct, I thought he was marvellous, terribly hard – he had me in tears a couple of times. But ever since I’ve been dying to work with him again, although I couldn’t say it was the happiest film of my life. The trouble was that Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster are very much frustrated directors themselves. Sandy is very shy and very quiet. Like the tiger, very quiet and you never know when he’ll pounce.”

Another film which Mackendrick was hired to direct was Carl Foreman’s Guns of Navarone. There was disagreement and he did not.

“All actors are children,” he says. Perhaps life would be simpler if they were because Mackendrick has had notable success in directing children (Mandy, The Maggie). He has, the studio word has it, coaxed a brilliant performance out of twelve-year-old Fergus McClelland in Sammy Going South.

During the location work in Africa, crewmen remember Mackendrick forgetting work only three times in three months. All his other evenings were spent discussing the next day’s filming, or drawing sketches of scenes to be shot, a habit which originated in his advertising agency days.

Janette Scott says that, in some ways, he is his own worst enemy. “In the studios you’ll soon find out he is not the most popular man, in the world, This I can’t understand. The moment you get to know and why he works the way he does, you understand him completely.”

“He drives everyone up the bloody wall,” says another former colleague. “He never seems very sure of what he really wants until he’s actually shooting.”

As far as Mackendrick himself is concerned, the less that is said about him the happier he will he. But he is under no illusions about his own image. The indignation of others is easily contained within the framework of his own, often macabre, sense of humour.

On location in Africa he took a small unit into the bush many miles away from Nairobi, The only contact with the main party was by radio-telephone.

A message was received that a light aircraft was urgently required to fly an injured member of the small party to hospital in Nairobi. The message did not say who was injured.

It took twelve hours for producer Hal Mason to discover just who was hurt.

Eventually he was informed that it was not his director, but a white hunter who had fallen out of a tree.

As the news arrived, Mackendrick was, in the words of one of the party, laughing like hell.

“They all hoped it was me,” he said. Gleefully.

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