Double Feature: Girl Getters Get Got in '64
Double features are a great way to watch movies. Well-selected double features complement each other like food and wine, bringing out hidden flavors or making you realize new aspects of something familiar. If you’re ever in need of a keenly paired set of movies to screen, check out our handy pre-packaged Double Features category– complete with theme breakdowns, aesthetic comparisons, and honest commentary about which movie should be the leading feature.
There’s nothing more satisfying than watching the player get played. In this double feature, we’re focusing in on some surprising parallels between two British films released in the year 1964. England was full on into the swinging ‘60s by then; it was a time of lads and ladies, pop music and mod clothing. Richard Lester's A Hard Day’s Night and Michael Winner’s The System just so happen to serve as perfect time capsules. Besides the fact that these movies came out the same year, are shot in black and white, and have a conscious focus on pop music, they also strangely parallel each other in structure. Both films focus on men who make the ladies swoon and they lap up the attention, but they also showcase the precarious balance inherent to the power of the ladies’ man. While A Hard Day's Night portrays a rather bubblegum playground for its main men, who in the height of Beatlesmania could have anything and any one they wanted, The System showcases a more kitchen-sink drama where women are hunted as prey by bored young men. Yet in both movies, despite being considered second class citizens, women secretly hold the looming power to shape the worlds of these men. Turns out the delicate power structure doesn't hold up if women don't buy into it.
Lead feature: A Hard Day's Night (1964)
If you haven't already seen A Hard Day's Night please do yourself a favor and get on that. And don't give me no crap about how you're "too cool" for The Beatles because this movie is not only the definition of charming, but it's also genuinely hilarious. It made Richard Lester's career, helped to usher in the concept of the music video, and managed to really bottle the magic that The Beatles held (and still hold) over their audience. Though completely scripted, the movie feels spontaneous and the dialogue feels largely improvised. Not too surprising, as the script was written after screenwriter Alun Owen spent several days following the band, observing both their personalities and their lifestyle. It's a quick, witty and fun romp through the eye of the storm that was Beatlesmania.
The film follows a day in the life of The Beatles as it opens with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr being chased by a massive crowd of screaming women through Liverpool onto a London-bound train. While on the train, they try the goof around with the stewardesses and blatantly ignore the pleads of their manager Norm (Norman Rossington) and road manager Shake (John Junkin) to settle down and sit quietly. There is also Paul's grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) to look after, who despite being "very clean" spends most of the film wandering off chasing skirts.
Once they arrive in London, they're mobbed yet again by a massive crowd of women as they have to duck into a car and then into a hotel, where they're trapped together in one room. Norm tells them to not leave for their own safety, tasking them with answering a truck load of fan mail for the next couple hours until the concert. Instead, they all sneak out to party in the hotel, try their hand at the hotel casino, and weasel their way out of their obligations at all costs.
Eventually Norm and Shake manage to rally them into the theatre for rehearsals. After being told by both Norm and the TV director (Victor Spinetti) that it's incredibly important they are prompt for this televised concert, all four of them immediately bust out of the fire escape. They get separated and each have a short excursion on their own. John meets a woman in a hallway who knows he's famous but can't place him, and George gets pulled into a variety show's office in a case of mistaken identity, where he proceeds to bad-mouth all of their decisions and gets kicked out for not being trendy enough.
Ringo becomes frustrated at being left behind to watch Paul's grandfather, who spends the whole time shaming Ringo for sitting around reading instead of living it up with women and booze. Ringo decides to leave the venue on his own an hour before the concert, wandering the Thames and taking photos. Unfortunately, he seems to get into trouble no matter what he tries to do, and eventually gets arrested for loitering. While waiting in the police station he runs into Paul's grandfather who has also been taken in for trying to sell bootleg Beatles autographs. Eventually Paul's Grandfather makes a run for it, getting the rest of the band to come into the police station and spring Ring' just in time to run back to play the concert.
The Beatles embody a perfect balance of talent, polish and youthful cheekiness. As four talented and attractive guys in their mid twenties, the mere mention of whom caused hordes of adoring female fans to scream and faint on the reg', you'd imagine they'd have everything they could possibly desire. Yet, their lives are ruled entirely by their fame, with every minute managed for them and any possibility of escape met with said hordes of screaming fans ready to maul them apart. While A Hard Day's Night portrays The Beatles in a happy-go-lucky comedic style, it also hammers home the strict limitations of fame – they're only as free as their (mostly female) fans allow them to be.
The film also shows how outside of their rigidly structured lives, they're back to being nobodies; for what the women giveth, they taketh away just as easily. When they get separated and wander out on their own, their power is shown to diminish sharply as they're mistaken either for imitators or taken at face value as blue-collar hooligans. When Milly in the hallway recognizes John as somebody famous but can't place who he is she ends up rejecting him, and he walks away dejected. For all of their success and creative control, outside of their careers they seemingly have none at all that isn't granted to them by women simultaneously building up and reinforcing their status. With their fans they're ladies' men prisoners but without them they're nobodies; damned if they do and damned if they don't. I Should Have Known Better, but it turns out the life of a Beatle is more "You Can't Do That" than it is holding hands and dancing with you okay I blew it I'll stop.
Second Billed: The System (1964)
Director Michael Winner has a bit of a notorious reputation, more recently as a creep, but also primarily as a director of a bunch of stinkers. Besides the wildly successful (but critically panned) Death Wish (1974), there's not too much else he's actively praised for, but I'd like to recommend a second look at The System / The Girl-Getters. It's an excellent slice-of-life film about a small-town big fish in a swinging sixties man's world that's just starting to swing out of his grasp as the times, the season, and his age start to creep up on him.
With two weeks left of summer at a British seaside resort town, Steve "Tinker" Tyler (Oliver Reed) and his gang devote all of their time to working "The System." This involves Tinker, a street photographer, snapping photos of attractive women in order to get their names and local addresses, and then distributing this information among his gang of friends who in turn playfully-aggressively pursue the women. Knowing full well these women will be leaving after the summer, they work with each other on how many "grockles" (tourists) they can check off as notches in their bedposts. While meeting girls isn't too hard when most of these tourist women are looking for holiday romances, actually getting laid is another story. Typically these guys end up pretending to be in love or promising marriage in order to get them in bed, and then disappear the next morning.
As the ringleader, Tinker most definitely the worst of these womanizers – handsome, charming and ruthless. He's completely content in having a revolving door of one night stands for a life. He just loves the chase, whether it's with local married women or whichever tourist du jour. Tinker lays his sights on Nicola (Jane Merrow), an upper class girl he spies on the train, who initially seems amused by his simplistic working-class charm. Despite the fact that she's socially way out of his league, she eventually allows him to sleep with her. Tinker quickly realizes that he wants more from her, as for once in his life he's actually in love. But men like Tinker don't get married to women like Nicola, and his world starts to fall apart as he finds himself left in the dust by her instead of vice versa.
The System, whether or not it meant to, showcases just how precarious the power structure of aggressive masculinity is. Once these women play the game right back, the cracks in the system break apart in seconds – it can't hold up if nobody believes in its strength. Jane Merrow's Nicola proves herself to be better at Tinker's system than he is. As an attractive rich girl, she moves coolly though both the highbrow and the lowbrow worlds, all the while still managing to always come out true to herself and her desires (probably the best gift money could buy a woman in the sixties).
Tinker's system is likewise a perfect portrait of the Stockholm syndrome-like cage of masculinity. Like A Hard Day's Night, he's all at once compelled by and trapped by the power of female desire. In Tinker's case, living in a resort town that only comes alive for a couple months of the year, he's boxed himself in so tightly that he has no where to go but brag about how great it is to be so trapped. He talks a big game about moving out of town and going to the city, but he's so comfortable getting laid left-and-right by women who don't know any better that he's just circling the drain. Tinker's like the guy who can barely pay rent but boasts about how much money he spends at the strip club.
Reed really owns every inch of the screen through his expressions and movements – his insincere smiles, sarcastic quips, lecherous stares, masculine prowl, and scuffles with his fists or with tennis rackets. But also through his heart-on-his-sleeve honesty and his double-blind vulnerability. There's so much going on in Tinker it's astounding for a movie that's essentially about picking up girls. It's entirely believable that on the merit of his charm alone he manages to continually attract both men and women into his charade.
Also similarly to A Hard Day's Night, The System feels like a proto-music video, with a pop soundtrack by The Searchers, plus other '60s pop rock, intercut with some quick editing and truly beautiful cinematography by Nicholas Roeg; a mixture of the handheld man-on-the-street documentary style shots, some of which have the composition that feels fashion magazine-worthy. For a movie in black and white, it really oozes that '60s technicolor vibe of cool.