I Start Counting Blu-ray Review
Wynne (Jenny Agutter) is fourteen, living in a modern tower block with her adoptive family in an English new town. She has a crush on her thirty-something foster brother George (Bryan Marshall), something she’s remorselessly teased about by best friend Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe). Meanwhile, there has been a series of murders of young women in the locality. One day, Wynne finds a bloodstained sweater George has thrown away and she begins to suspect that he might be the killer.
Before home video, films which didn’t set the box office alight on their original cinema release sometimes made an impression and built up a following later on. For most of the population who didn’t live near to a repertory cinema, that meant catching the film on television – which meant having to catch it at the time of broadcast as there was no means of recording it, which is the case with I Start Counting. (Brief note: many sources, including the packaging and contents of the present Blu-ray, end the title with an exclamation mark, but there isn’t one on screen.) It played in cinemas in a double bill, and as I write this in 2020 has never had a UK video or disc release. For many people, their chance to see the film was on one of its two BBC television showings, on June 6, 1977 and May 28, 1982. I saw the latter, and watching the film again thirty-eight years later, quite a lot of it had stayed in the mind.
I Start Counting is on the surface a surface a suspense thriller, with Wynne's and our suspicions passing from one suspect to another. It’s not hard to work out who the culprit is, and that person is one of those the film allows us to suspect along the way. In this, it is one of a wave of similarly-themed films which came out in the 1960s. However,it puts a teenage girl at the centre, as amateur detective as well as possible victim, and it works just as well, if not better, as a coming of age story. Wynne is occupied with a blossoming sexuality which she hasn’t yet learned to deal with. It also convincingly depicts her friendship with Corinne (Sutcliffe was in reality nine years older than Agutter), and the competitiveness and jealousy that exists below the surface. Corinne is keen to assert her authority over Wynne, pointing out that she is the older of the two by a few months, and the most sexually experienced – or so she says, and do we believe her?
I Start Counting is written by Richard Harris (a prolific screenwriter, for TV more often than cinema, and not to be mistaken for the actor of the same name) and based on a novel by Audrey Erskine Lindop. She (1920-1986) was a popular novelist of her day whose legacy, rightly or wrongly, has not lasted. Other than a premium-priced facsimile edition of her novel 1953 The Singer Not the Song, she is now out of print. Some of her novels were filmed, and – without the Erskine in her byline – she was one of the screenwriters of the 1948 film Blanche Fury. The novel version of I Start Counting, published in 1966, is in first person, and the film sticks to Wynne’s perspective most of the way, but makes the story third person, with no voiceover narration.
Another reason for the following I Start Counting cultivated is the fact that it is a key teenage performance from Jenny Agutter, one of three films she made in the space of just over one year: this, Walkabout and The Railway Children, produced if not released in that order. She was sixteen, playing fourteen when she made I Start Counting. It’s no doubt due to her acting – not least, her body language as well as the work of the make-up department – that she does look noticeably younger than she does in Walkabout, which began shooting in August 1969, two months after this wrapped. The supporting cast is full of familiar names of the time, all used well.
Filming took place at Bray Studios with locations in Bracknell and its suburb Easthampstead. Bracknell was one of several “new towns” developed after World War II and the film plays off the sterility of the new concrete and glass as opposed to the older, more traditional buildings in the area – Wynne’s current tower-block home as opposed to her now-derelict old family home, in short. The tower-block where Wynne lives is Point Royal in Easthampstead, built in 1964, which is now a Grade II Listed Building, a case of once-modern architecture now settled into tradition. (For another film of around the time making good use of a new town, Stevenage in that case, see Here We Go Around the Mulberry Bush, with coincidentally the same cinematographer.)
David Greene (1921-2003) had been an actor who in the early 1950s and moved into directing, first for television, making his cinema debut with The Shuttered Room in 1967. He made a run of films in Britain in the late 1960s, in various genres. Prior to I Start Counting was The Strange Affair, another film which has been AWOL in the UK for some time, which also used the services of DP Alex Thomson. From the 1970s, Greene worked mostly on American television. While he could and did work in many genres, he had an affinity with suspense thrillers, and often put women and their concerns at the centre. Thomson had entered the film industry in his teens and had been a longtime camera operator for Nicolas Roeg in particular. He had just graduated to cinematographer with Mulberry Bush and went on a distinguished career, with an Oscar nomination for Excalibur and working for Roeg (Eureka and Track 29), Michael Cimino, Kenneth Branagh and others.
This was released on November 6, 1970, only a month and a half before The Railway Children, which Agutter had made two films later. (Walkabout followed in 1971, having been held back for that year’s Cannes festival). You can sense that its distributor didn’t quite know what to do with I Start Counting, as it was put out on a very odd double bill with a U-certificate war movie, Mosquito Squadron. The present Blu-ray transfer begins with a late-60s X certificate (then restricting audiences to those sixteen and over) but the film was reclassified AA (fourteen and over) on July 1, 1970, which was the day that that certificate was introduced and the X upped to eighteen and over.
As it has been hard to see for a long time, I Start Counting is a film which has been on many people’s wish-list for a properly presented disc edition. Now it has one, even if from another country to the one it was made in. It’s a film which can now have more of its due.
This edition of I Start Counting is released by Fun City Editions in the USA, and is encoded for Region A only. The film has no MPAA rating. It hasn’t been submitted to the BBFC since its original release but in today’s terms it would be at least a 12 and most likely a 15.
The transfer is in the intended ratio of 1.85:1, based on a 2K scan from the 35mm interpositive. Although my only previous viewing was on television, standard-definition TV at that, I’ve seen enough 35mm films, including those from the same period as this one, projected to say that the transfer does look like one, even down to minor colour-shifts in the grain. There’s some small but not distracting damage, small scratches and speckles, at the points where you would often find them in a film print, at the very ends and beginnings of reels, and cue dots appear at the end of the first two. I can be especially specific in that because there isn’t a scene-selection menu but instead a reel-selection menu: six of them, which is what you would expect for a film running 105 minutes.
The sound is the original mono, rendered here as DTS-HD MA 2.0. It’s clear and dialogue, music and sound effects are well balanced. One big demerit though is that there aren’t hard-of-hearing subtitles available.
The extras begin with a commentary by Samm Deighan. She talks about the film in the context of other serial-killer films made during the decade, starting with, approximately, Psycho and Peeping Tom and morphing into the early 1972s with gialli which were far more violent, sexually violent in particular, and less sensitive than the present film. I Start Counting, she points out, has many echoes of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. She also discusses the film’s dark fairy-tale aspects (spot the red cloak that appears in a scene near the end) and spends a lot of time on the themes of Wynne’s coming of age, and her complex and not always positive friendship with Corinne. She also gives overviews of the careers of the principal cast and crew. (One nitpick: Raw Meat is the US title of the British-made film Death Line, also shot by Alex Thomson, not the other way round.) An excellent commentary.
Jenny Agutter provides a brief (0:28) introduction to the film but her major contribution to the extras is an interview (20:24). Much of this is devoted to her career before and after the film, with a five-year hiatus as far as the cinema was concerned (stage and television work, due to the downturn in the UK film industry and hence fewer opportunities for her) before relocating to the USA and acting in films like Logan’s Run and Equus. She’s clearly fond of I Start Counting and in particular of David Greene, and that comes across.
Also in the disc is “Loss of Innocence” (7:35), a video essay by Chris O’Neill, with the narration by Tori Lyons. This concentrates on the coming-of-age themes in the film. Also on the disc are a self-navigating stills gallery (0:55) and the film’s trailer, albeit with a Fun City Editions ident at the start (1:53).
Also in the package is a booklet, running to twelve pages including the covers. “I Start Directing: David Greene’s Complicated Family Stories” is an essay by Amanda Reyes which, as its title suggests, concentrates on the relationships between Wynne and her adoptive family. The essay links I Start Counting to other films of Greene’s, especially with his interest in complex female protagonists, many of them younger. The second essay is “Remembrances of Basil Kirchin, David Greene and I Start Counting” by Matt Stephenson, a tribute to Kirchin in particular. Kirchin (1927-2005) was a jazz drummer who moved into film scoring, beginning with the UK “mondo” feature Primitive London and continuing with John Boorman’s debut Catch Us if You Can, The Abominable Dr Phibes, The Mutations and three films directed by Greene, including this one. The two men remained friends, last meeting when Greene relocated to the USA. The booklet also includes full film credits.
I Start Counting is available to buy now on Blu-ray.