Running Away From The Black Hats- The Small World of Sammy Lee (DVD Review)

This re-release of the big screen adaptation of the 1958 TV play The Small World of Sammy Lee expands upon its original one room setting into the sleazy and seedy world of 1960s Soho. The film, written and directed by future Chitty Chitty Bang Bang director Ken Hughes, opens by taking the audience through the melancholic scored morning streets of Soho, taking the audience past the various restaurants, striptease establishments and coffee bars similar to those of Expresso Bongo

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Small World stars Anthony Newley as weaselly striptease club compère Sammy Lee, who must raise (what was then) the princely sum of £300 in five hours or suffer the same fate as his friend Barney Thompson, who found himself the wrong side of a gangster’s razor after suffering a few bad hands in the wrong game of poker.

After unsuccessfully pleading for help from his usual financial sources, his boss and shopkeeper brother (played by Warren Mitchell). There’s a particularly emotive scene that shows the bond between brothers which is also an interesting snapshot of Jewish family heritage that existed in the area. When Sammy isn’t dishing out bawdy jokes to horny drunk men or looking to see a bit of dancing female flesh through hazy cigarette smoke, dark lighting and to a house band soundtrack, he’s out round the streets of Soho doing the kind of dodgy deals between shows that Del Boy would be taking notes on – he’s aided by Wilfred Brambell, who is great in a supporting role.

The character of Sammy that Newly plays could be perceived as a loser with gambling problems that has bendable principles under pressure. But he’s also a caring everyman looking out for teenage holiday camp conquest Patsy, who’s come down to London after a job guarantee from Sammy. She’s a naive northern angel dressed in white, clutching a suitcase that might be his way out – or he might just go back to the life he’s been leading already. The closing shot lets audiences have their own opinion after his reprieve.

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There’s an element of humour that surrounds proceedings, but it’s entrenched in a deeply depressing air of threat. the film is typical of the British “kitchen sink” drama, a style achieved through the vivid monochrome cinematography by photographer/documentarian Wolf Suschitzky and the film’s working class setting. The film has been restored in 4K, arriving on Blu-ray for the first time, and contains a tour of the locations used in the film by academic Richard Dacre. Soho may have changed due to economic progress but the ghosts of its sleazy past remain.

Finally, there are two interviews with actress Julie Foster, who discusses her role as Bradford girl Patsy, and director Mike Hodges, who talks about his appreciation for the film along with the influence that the once-thought-lost Sammy Lee had on his 1971 British gangster classic Get Carter, starring Micheal Caine. The directing career of Ken Hughes is fascinating and this release by Studio Canal shows that he’s a filmmaker whose work is waiting to be rediscovered. His other work includes a collaboration with James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli on The Trials of Oscar Wilde, an unsuccessful attempt to break into Hollywood with the Mae West comedy Sexette and also the “head in a fish tank” video nasty slasher Terror Eyes, starring Rachel Ward.

4/5
Dir: Ken Hughes
Scr: Ken Hughes
Pro: Frank Godwin
Cast: Anthony Newley, Warren Mitchell, Julie Foster, Wilfred Brambell, Robert Stephens
D.O.P: Wolf Suschitzky
Editor: Henry Richardson
Music: Kenny Graham, Philip Martell
Country: UK
Year: 1962
Run time: 107 minutes
The Small World of Sammy Lee is available on DVD and Blu Ray now.