The Small World Of Sammy Lee

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Small World Of Sammy Lee
"Newley's acutely balanced performance lets us see the fear emerge in flashes as if he were coming up for air."

"It's beautiful watching you work," says odd job man Harry (Wilfrid Brambell) to smooth talking Sammy Lee (Anthony Newley) at one point in this film. But Sammy isn't doing what he's doing for the joy of it, or even to make his daily living. If he can't find £300 (the equivalent of about £6,000 today) in five hours, he's going to be badly beaten. The last guy who reneged on debts to the gangster who's after him needed 24 stitches, and he only owed £200. "Yes, I can multiply," Sammy relents.

From the card game gone awry through the unlucky horse race to the various frantic deals Sammy makes to try to get the cash together and save his skin, this film is a portrait of a highly skilled man working at top speed - working so fast, in fact, that he barely has time to get emotional bout the situation, though Newley's acutely balanced performance lets us see the fear emerge in flashes as if he were coming up for air.

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A compere by trade, Sammy is, as one eager young gangster puts it, "a professional spieler," and we also see him deploy his talents in his regular job in a cheap strip joint where the cynical attitude of the staff belies the sensual illusions they try to create. Trying to keep to his schedule and avoid losing his job (or at least avoid losing his job), he also finds time to look out for teenage newcomer Patsy (Julia Foster), an old flame of his from Bradford, with his tenderness towards her - even as they explore the possibility of continuing their sexual relationship - one of the key things that helps the viewer connect with him as a human being during his frantic exchanges, and that consequently makes us root for his survival.

The strip club scenes, daring in 1962 but for the most part pointedly unerotic, form part of a celebration of Soho life that is a lot of what gives the film its charm, especially in retrospect. Slender young women in sequinned costumes bitch about their working conditions backstage, and the ease with which they turn on the charm when the lights go up starkly emphasises that this is a professional transaction. Everybody is focused on money, rent, and the stresses of day to day life, yet there is also a genuine liberality about these spaces in which women stand up to men long before they would have dare to in most conventional workplaces, and in which gay men live openly, with no-one showing them the least disrespect, despite their sex lives still being illegal. The constant background presence of gangsters, illegal gambling rackets and sleazy business deals contributes to a DIY vibe - this is not a place where anybody expects the state or the white collar business world to take an interest, and a separate society is thriving. The film makes good use of key Soho locations that add to its historical appeal and distinguish it from its stageplay predecessor..

Wittily written, fast paced and often coruscatingly funny, the film largely gets away with its structural weaknesses. Although it has taken a bit of a battering over time, it's cleverly framed as well as attractively shot, so it still has plenty of visual appeal. It never quite lived up to its promise in its day but its release on DVD may finally see it reach the audience it deserves.

Reviewed on: 12 Nov 2016
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A seedy strip club compere tries to stay one step ahead of heavies out to collect his gambling debts.

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London 2016

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