The huge success of the Italian film Mondo Cane in 1962 engendered a horde of imitations, among which were a trilogy of documentary films by enterprising British film-making partners Arnold L. Miller and Stanley A. Long - West End Jungle (1961), London in the Raw (1964) and Primitive London (1965), all emanating from their own production company, Searchlight Films. It is with the second of these films, London in the Raw, that we are concerned.
The mondo formula was to present a series of vignettes of outrageous and bizarre, and preferably titillating, aspects of human culture. The advantage was that these movies were not only money-spinners, they were also relatively cheap to make. While they presented themselves as slices of real life the one thing that virtually all these films have in common is that much of the footage was either faked or staged. London in the Raw is no exception.
The subject matter of London in the Raw is the sordidly glamorous side of London life in the mid-60s. This gives it a certain focus that is lacking in some other mondo films.
The mondo film is in fact a sub-genre of the exploitation movie, and like the American exploitation movies made from the 1930s to the 1950s these films try to get away with salacious material by presenting themselves as being educational or in the public interest. This is an aspect that gives the exploitation movie much of its charm (and amusement value) to audiences today.
Miller and Long had started their careers as pornographers, so while much of the footage is staged the movie does depict a world with which they were extremely familiar. The world of the sex industry, of clip joints and strip clubs, of “glamour” photography, of night-clubs owned by gangsters - this was their world and they were quite prepared to show it more or less as it really was. The result is an enthralling time capsule and much of the footage shot in real clubs such as Churchill’s in unique and of considerable interest from the social history point of view.
Of course like all exploitation movies this one promises more titillation than it actually delivers but it was not going to succeed at the box office without at least some nudity. The nudity is provided in a number of ingenious ways, including an art life class for beatnik painters.
Beatniks feature in several segments of the movie, offering an intriguing view of the developing counterculture of the 60s. One of the more interesting facts revealed by the extremely informative liner notes is that the counterculture was in fact to a very large degree financed by the sex industry (a fact that apologists fir the counterculture are eager to ignore), so the scenes of beatnik artists earning a living through porn are in fact disturbingly accurate.
The movie is not all sex clubs though. The intention was to present the movie as a portrait of London life in 1964 and it includes a number of segments dealing with health clubs (an industry that possibly has even lower ethical standards than the sex industry) and a surprisingly gruesome segment dealing with hair transplants, these segments being intended to demonstrate the lure of beauty.
While it is quite unequivocally an exploitation movie it is also a rather depressing look at the loneliness of modern life. Virtually every aspect of contemporary London life that is examined in this movie is to some extent driven by the fear and despair of loneliness, giving the movie a rather melancholy feel.
Miller and Long were skillful enough film-makers and the movie is, within the limitations of its budget and the difficulties presented by some of the locations, technically very competent.
The BFI Blu-Ray release comes with a host of extras including an alternative cut of the main feature and three short documentary films of varying interest. All three were made by a British duo of documentary film-makers, Staffan Lamm and Peter Davis, and oddly enough were originally intended for Swedish television.
Pub, made in 1962, is a tediously unwatchable exercise in social realism. Strip is a look behind the scenes at a London strip club in 1966. Chelsea Bridge Boys, shot in 1965, is much more interesting - a look at the Rockers, the British motorcycle youth subculture that gained such notoriety from its violent clashes with the Mods, a rival youth subculture. The members of the unofficial motorcycle club (which despite its name includes quite a few female members), the Chelsea Bridge Boys, come across as being not overly intellectual but a great deal more honest and intelligent than the pretentious and insultingly condescending interviewers.
The BFI’s Blu-Ray transfer of London in the Raw is exceptionally good and looks crisp and vivid. The three short subjects suffer somewhat from the less than perfect condition of the surviving source materials. The BFI clearly out a good deal of effort into the presentation of these cinematic oddities.
London in the Raw is by its very nature a mixed bag but it’s certainly a fascinating look at the 60s. If you’re interested in this time period then it’s most certainly worth a look.