Duffer/The Moon Over the Alley Review

The wildest Flipside yet – a teenager torn between his male S&M pal and a female prostitute, & a multicultural musical

Never before has the first criteria in the BFI’s Flipside mission statement of “rescuing weird and wonderful British films from obscurity” been so appropriate as in this very strange double feature of Duffer and The Moon Over the Alley. The first picture is a 1971 freak show about a scrawny young man who succumbs willingly to the sadomasochistic affections of his older male companion and, when that becomes too much to take, flees to the thick arms of a blonde-wigged prostitute he calls Your Gracie. The Moon Over the Alley is an incidental musical with a full cast of characters, set in the Notting Hill area of London, that takes a particular interest in those from other countries who’ve come to England, usually in the hope of a better life. Somewhat surprisingly, the two films were made by the same men, Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq. This might represent the strangest double bill ever logically issued together in a DVD or Blu-ray release. I can’t begin to think of another company in the world that would have given these two oddities a Blu-ray release.

Duffer is something else. Aside from the sheer weirdness of the story, you quickly notice a few things about it that indicate things are, internally, a bit off somewhere. The voiceover, usually representing the thoughts of the lead character Duffer (played in body, but not voice, by Kit Gleave), has a wonderfully positive spin on his grimy life. The burly man named Louis Jack (credited to James Roberts, a pseudonym for co-director William Dumaresq) likes to do violent and sexually demeaning things to him but Duffer justifies it all by asking what right he’d have to deprive Louis Jack of something that gives him so much pleasure. This is taken to the extreme when Louis Jack, intent on spawning, forces Duffer into sodomy so that he’ll get pregnant and then makes him eat jarred apricots until he gets sick as proof that he’s carrying Louis Jack’s child. Yes this later goes even more horribly wrong.

Duffer takes refuge in reading, sitting by the water, and, especially, by visiting his sturdy mother-like figure Your Gracie (Erna May). If Louis Jack is the disciplinarian then Your Gracie is the comforter. Though she’s a prostitute, and Duffer indulges in her apparent sexual charms, there’s no indication that money changes hands between the two. The relationship he has with her seems to serve a similar purpose for him as what he does for Louis Jack. This distances the homosexuality element from Duffer. What he receives from Louis Jack is a twisted sense of charity as much as it is any joy derived by the sadomasochistic and sexual occurrences. Duffer runs to Your Gracie after being sodomized in an effort to “restore my manhood,” he says. The film is so bereft of convention that allegory can be assigned quite easily to it, but I don’t think there’s much to support a reading favorable to gay men. Which isn’t to say it’s necessarily hostile in that regard either, only that the dirt lingers past sexual orientation.

Much of the curiosity, or appeal if you wish, of Duffer is in how ugly it resolves to be. It looks rather terrible, having been shot in 16mm by a skeleton crew of usually just three people behind the camera, though not at all ineptly made. This gives the film its rough edges and also a disturbed quality. Not really being a horror movie or anything else easily categorized, Duffer resists most cinematic comparisons but it maybe captures some of the psychological unease of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. The character of Duffer cannot always distinguish between reality and imagination, and his own take on reality is itself distinct from the normal view, so it might follow that he suffers from some form of schizophrenia. And, keep in mind, it’s his thoughts that the viewer relies on since the entire audio of the film was done with voiceover. The voice we hear, however, is not of the actor who plays Duffer. It’s instead that of William Dumaresq, the credited co-director who also wrote the story and embodies Louis Jack. The same man we hear as Duffer is who we see as Louis Jack, a mind-blowing revelation.

After the weird and maybe not quite wonderful experience of seeing Duffer, I braced myself for most anything with Despins and Dumaresq’s follow-up The Moon Over the Alley. It’s almost quaint! There’s hardly any obvious connection between the two films. They do share a leading actress, with Erna May returning and looking much different as the German wife and mother who’s also landlord to most of the characters elsewhere in the picture. There’s also again the use of Notting Hill as the setting and dingy 16mm black and white framed in Academy ratio. Otherwise the similarities are extremely subtle or absent all together. So, if you didn’t care for Duffer there’s still plenty of reason to give The Moon Over the Alley a chance or vice versa, or perhaps you’ll find the charm in both films.

As specialized as the audience would seem to be for Duffer, its follow-up might have just as narrow of a niche interest. It’s a musical, usually labeled as Brechtian, with a large cast that’s like something from Robert Altman without the humor, shot mostly in almost endless darkness or dimly lit interiors, and it has a subplot involving the city’s planned demolition of the house where the main characters are living. No real uplift, and rape and murder among the occurrences. The music both for this and Duffer was done by Galt MacDermot, who had previously composed Hair. He contributes a fascinating mix of songs that include busking sorts done by a band taking up the alley, a sunny radio tune suitable for singing by housewives, and Jamaican calypso so beautifully out of place that it just removes you from the film with little regret. You can’t question the ambition of either Despins or Dumaresq. How sad then that they didn’t really continue down this bizarre path they started together with Duffer and The Moon Over the Alley. The possibilities of what a third feature from them might have involved seem limitless.

The Disc(s)

Spine 014 in the BFI’s never odder Flipside series, these pictures are contained on a region-free Blu-ray as well as DVD in this Dual Format edition release. Both discs are dual-layered.

The films are in what the BFI assures us are their original aspect ratios of 1.33:1. The booklet also provides further details on the HD transfers. Duffer comes from the original 16mm A&B negatives and The Moon Over the Alley was taken from the original 16mm mute finegrain positive. Though restoration then followed by the BFI, there’s a disclaimer of sorts noting that “[a]s both films were shot on 16mm with very small budgets, some technical issues as per the source materials remain.” Indeed, imperfections do still exist prominently in the transfers. Scratches and dirt, a hair, wobble in the frame on Duffer, all of these things must be mentioned but they add more than take away to the viewing experience in this instance. You want that extra sheen of filth I think. And it’s still not bad at all to watch, far from it. Grain is particularly prominent in Duffer. Most of that film probably doesn’t need to be seen in any more vivid detail than what this transfer allows. The Moon Over the Alley is notable for how much darkness is used, with black levels looking sufficiently deep but not without some inevitable loss of detail. It seems smoother, with a bit less grain, than Duffer.

English language audio comes through in a pair of two-channel PCM mono tracks on the Blu-ray. (The DVD uses Dolby Digital mono.) Duffer was shot without sound and later dubbed. The original magnetic reels were used to transfer the audio for this edition. The result is a clean listen where not just the voiceover dialogue and score but also stray, sometimes almost eerie sounds can be heard. Audio for The Moon Over the Alley was transferred from a 16mm print. Mild crackle and hiss is evident at times. Dialogue, though, is clear and so are the many songs. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are optional and white in color.

Aside from the films there’s nothing else on either disc. Duffer is featured more prominently on the cover than The Moon Over the Alley but they do seem like a double feature packaged together rather than one as the main attraction and the other constituting a bonus. As such, the review treats this release as a set where only the included booklet is considered to be supplemental. Before detailing the contents of the 36-page insert, I want to marvel at how extensive and vital an extra it proves to be. The BFI carefully put together a set of writings that shed an enormous amount of light on films that will be unknown and challenging to the vast majority of those who view them.

Separate essays by Stephen Thrower on the films feel very much like steps in the right direction of decoding what we’ve just been exposed to. His piece on Duffer is 6 pages and the one for The Moon Over the Alley lasts another 4. A February 1972 review of Duffer written by Nigel Andrews for Sight & Sound occupies a pair of pages. Alexander Walker’s assessment of The Moon Over the Alley that originally appeared in the Evening Standard in October of 1976 also goes 2 pages and is followed in the booklet by the filmmakers’ Statement of Intent for the same film that was submitted to the BFI Production Board. Of perhaps the most help is the 8-page contribution from director Despins, who goes by the first name Chuck. He talks in depth and modestly about the making of the pictures, deferring much of the credit to the late Dumaresq. Information on composer Galt McDermott is contained in a 3-page write-up. Bios on Despins and Dumaresq last 3 pages in total. Photos and credits finish tying the bow on this eccentric little package.

clydefro jones

Updated: Feb 23, 2011

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