The Angry Silence
On the surface of it this is a movie stocked with classic Western archetypes. The rather creepy opening credits feature that ultimate Western trope: the lone gunslinger riding into town while the main story revolves around the most honourable man in town, having been successively abandoned by all of his friends, facing down the dark forces all on his own. But what distinguishes The Angry Silence is that this is not set in the Old West, nor even in wartime but rather in the industrialised workplace in England in the 1960s.
It slowly emerges that the mysterious stranger arriving by early morning train is an agent provocateur, tasked with causing strife at the local industrial plant which he hopes will lead to effective union takeover. In concert with Bernard Lee – playing against type as the factory’s oleaginous union steward – a strike ballot is called on the flimsiest of pretences and a walkout is staged.
Into this maelstrom Richard Attenborough ‘s Tom Curtis is dragged. A popular member of the workforce who nonetheless opposes the strike and continues at his station. He’s hardly John Galt but rather he sees through the shallowness of the union steward’s demands and having just received news of another child on the way needs all the money he can get. He’s not alone in his actions: maybe a dozen others take the same line but they get peeled off with threats of violence until he is the last man standing. He’s about to throw the towel in too when the steward makes a foolhardy visit to his home and threatens him in front of his wife. Now, an Englishman’s home is his castle so Curtis digs his heels in, as much out of spite as principal, and continues the blacklegging alone.
This was filmed in the late 1950s on an industrial shop floor, both a time and a place very much in the grip of hidebound left wing forces, so it’s all the more surprising that the compelling message is the individual rather than collective action winning the day. Other movies in the genre – The Stars Look Down, Norma Rae, Matewan – overwhelmingly take the position of the noble group set against feudal management but here we transcend that to explore a reluctant individual fighting against the bully.
The script cleverly sidesteps charges of being reactionary by making the strikes ‘unofficial’ and the behaviour of the union top brass increasingly unhinged. Management too are as spineless as the shop floor is docile, focusing on maintaining calm so as not to jeopardise a juicy government contract. The factory owner, having spied Attenborough braving the picket line to get to work, even opines he “Doesn’t like lone wolves, no matter what side they’re on.”
The agent provocateur, an aloof Alfred Burke, remains elusive through the film and is hardly fleshed out – he’s barely given a name – but his character is stronger for it. The cutaways to him skulking around the factory and the conspiratorial phone calls back to HQ are all we need to recognise him as a malign, spectral force.
Richard Attenborough recalls the trouble the film had at some screenings when it came out and how he himself made a personal visit to a union hall in Aberdeen, then showing the picture:
“Never have I faced such an overtly hostile audience. But they were, at least, prepared to give me a hearing and, after I had talked for half an hour, explaining why we had made the film and what it was trying to say on a human level, pronounced themselves willing to sit through it. To my utter astonishment, at the end of the running they all stood up and cheered. Before I drove home, they presented me with the miner’s lamp which still occupies pride of place in our drawing room.”
The Angry Silence – directed by Guy Green (1960)
A fair, but given the circumstances, astonishing take on workplace relations.
Fabulous editing and taut direction raise it above its kitchen sink contemporaries.
Film clip here