I Start Counting.
Director David Greene has gone on record as saying that he finds upheaval in society to be dramatic and exciting. “I like my films to be a sort of reportage of the world around the action.” For me this accurately describes the effect of his three remarkable films of the late sixties. I Start Counting (1969), The Shuttered Room (1968) and The Strange Affair (1968) reveal a brilliantly confident sense of circumvention of plot and action. Greene’s direction, editing and superlative camerawork consistently understates real crimes, imagined crimes and criminal elements in order to make them subordinate to character development and background social observation. These are Greene’s more pressing concerns. It’s not the fate of the serial killer (I Start Counting), the madwoman’s attacks (The Shuttered Room) or apprehending the drug dealers (The Strange Affair) that matters but the tainting psychological mark they make on others who, much more than victims, become strong witnesses. And what they witness is the social fragmentation of the family; a breakdown in the trust of authority; mental disturbance and the testing of innocence.
I Start Counting was filmed in Bracknell (Slough) a new town built in 1948. In one of its tower blocks lives 15 year old school girl Wynne (Jenny Agutter) who’s a Catholic and sexually attracted to her 32 year old stepbrother George (Bryan Marshall). She confides with her best friend Corinne (Claire Sutcliffe) about her crush on George. Wynne begins to suspect that George may be the serial killer of young women discovered on the common. Her suspicions start when Wynne observes him placing a parcel in a rubbish bin. Inside is Wynne’s old sweater, a present from George, and now bloodstained. Wynne hides in the back of George’s van in order to spy on him and discover who the woman is that he’s seeing in a posh house. And as Wynne trails him she intensely fantasises about her stepbrother and dreams of marrying him.
The great tension in I Start Counting is not in our discovering the identity of the killer (though that has its own understated generic power) but in the clash between innocence and experience. Jenny Agutter delivers a magnificent performance as a teenage girl in a romantic dream-world of desire. She is breathless, authentic, fragile and very moving. So much so that you emphasise with her stepbrother who wants Wynne to stay as she is, for George is caring and protective and would never take advantage of Wynne. When Wynne realises she can never have George, who is in a relationship with an older self-harming woman, it’s the start of her corrected perception of the reality of grownups. “You’re very romantic Wynne. I’m sorry.” says George in one of the most emotionally affecting scenes in the film. His sense of the ending Wynne’s innocence is as keen as hers.
Wynne and Corinne keep returning to the old family home that’s marked up for demolition. Here they play a game of calling up spirits to answer questions about relationships with boys. For Wynne it’s also a place of childhood memories and sexual fantasising. At these moments Greene’s thriller easefully slips into being a horror film as her family present the child Wynne with a waist-coated, toy white rabbit. Indeed other white-rabbit moments appear in I Start Counting suggesting that Wynne’s in danger of falling down her own rabbit hole of continuous fantasy. Yet pragmatic reality is introduced by her friend Corinne. She finds an old sweet wrapper and wonders who has been there recently. Wynne jokingly says it must have been a spirit to which Corinne announces, “Don’t be silly. Ghosts don’t eat Mars bars.” A very funny line that later on proves to be chilling when you realise the killer, often eating sweets, probably left the wrapper in the abandoned house. Greene just places it there, a subtle detail amongst many others in the film.
Social observation is to be found at its richest in the scenes with Wynne’s family. The noisily eating grandfather, the younger brother who keeps newspaper cuttings of the killings and Wynne’s anxious mother trying to hold them all together (She calls their home a palace) all living in accommodation where door knobs keep falling off and the rain doesn’t fall against the windows properly. It’s almost BBC Play For Today territory adding more subversion to this continually off centre and postponed ‘thriller.’
“There is more to life than memories” says the Catholic priest (Charles Lloyd-Pack) to Wynne after her confession. And this is what Wynne has to learn: a renouncing of her childish past; letting go of her sexual obsession with George and accepting the demolition of her old house. It’s an abandonment of emotional baggage but a corruption of an innocence that Wynne doesn’t, all together, wish to lose. Yet Wynne’s ‘purity’ is shaken by the discovery of another murdered girl. But who that is I wont reveal here for it would rob the film of its poignancy.
The craftsmanship I Start Counting is impressive. Its astute, angular, off-centre visuals and editing reveal the influence of Godard and in particular Two or Three Things I Know About Her. Godard was a fashionable figure for young directors then. Yet Greene is not set on pastiche but development. Not a JLG philosophical density but warm and involving family concerns transplanted to a very British milieu now trapped in a ‘progressive’ social change: new town versus the older community as the bulldozers crash through to create suburbia. And for me there’s a further French factor – the thriller director Claude Chabrol, who was then at his peak. For there’s a sense of the sadness and heartbreak of say Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes when the murderer and his victim are revealed near the climax of I Start Counting.
Multi-layered both technically and emotionally I Start Counting doesn’t put a foot wrong. It unpredictably weaves and meanders round its crime drama template yet for a crime film enthusiast, like myself, doesn’t ever get lost. Even the intervention of the police is minimal. When they are introduced it’s not to show them questioning suspects but a bewildered family and then helplessly looking on, with wry grins on their faces, when the supposed missing Wynne returns home drunk (Here Jenny Agutter is delightfully funny). In moments such as this Greene takes risks which probably accounted for the film’s mixed reception in 1970.
Further levels of pleasure are to be found in the music score of Basil Kirchin that’s alternately wistful and disturbing but never clogs up the film. And Brian Eatwell’s set design shows a well researched verisimilitude. Returning to the acting, the wonderful Jenny Agutter apart I found the casting for I Start Counting to be perfect. Did Bryan Marshall ever turn in a better performance than this? His affection and kindness towards his stepsister is remarkable and owes a great deal to the sensitive screenplay of Richard Harris. And Claire Sutcliffe, as Corinne, well conveys a wicked sense of adolescent bravado and fizzing sexuality.
Certainly I Start Counting depicts the social mores and attitudes of its time but isn’t crushed by stereotyping them. In 2021 the film’s captivating modernism, sympathy and generosity of character still engages. Tender, sensitive and probing I Start Counting feels like a near masterpiece. For too long a woefully neglected film. Now it’s back in a beautifully restored print for the BFI Flipside catalogue.
Alan Price © 2021.
Tthis review first appeared on the Crimetime website: crimetime.co.uk