Nigel Kneale; 1922 - 2006 October 31, 2006Posted by John Hodson in : Television, General, Film General , add a comment
One of the most perceptive and imaginative writers of science fiction, for the movies, but chiefly for British television, Nigel ‘Tom’ Kneale has died, aged 84.
Kneale’s contribution to a genre that encompasses both the ridiculous, but in his case, nearly always the sublime, is almost incalculable. He influenced whole generations of film makers, not just in this country, but round the world with his unique blend of science fiction, science fact, horror and prescience that matched the lauded H.G. Wells in its scope, it’s fierce intelligence and mind-boggling creativity.
I’ll point you first at HammerWeb, who appear to be among the first to have picked up the news with their Tribute to Nigel Kneale:
‘Hammer’s decision to make The Quatermass Xperiment was probably the most important the company would ever make. Director Val Guest cut the script down from a three hour epic to a taught [sic] 80 minute chiller, pitting Brian Donlevy’s Quatermass against the creeping unknown that comes to earth in the space rocket. The company’s first X picture proved a runaway success and would cause Hammer to look towards further macabre projects kickstarting the gothic horror cycle with The Curse of Frankenstein…’
But for anyone not too familiar with his work, a quick glance at IMDB and his Wiki entry shows that Kneale was much more than that. I have a vivid memory of quaking with fear at the creepy, atmospheric The Abominable Snowman as a child, yet at the same time, being captivated by what was so much more than a mere creature feature. On top of his three famous Quatermass films and TV series (even the fourth has much to merit it), his TV plays The Year of The Sex Olympics (which set Mary Whitehouse a twitter; I suspect the title was enough) and The Stone Tape still have a startling profundity (in the case of the former) and the power to make the skin crawl (in the case of the latter).
I’ve been thinking much about the man recently (see Something Wicked This Way Comes), it is, after all, that time of year. At his best, Kneale had the ability to chill the viewer to the very marrow.
Just last year, the BBC broadcast a ‘live’ version of his original The Quatermass Experiment script; though I love the Hammer film dearly, there is no slightly tacky macro shot of a doomed cephalopod here, no publicity drive to make the most of that ’X’ certificate - his original vision was, I thought, beautifully captured. Class is timeless.
God bless him; we’ll never see the like again.
The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of October 30, 2006Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Humphrey Bogart, Crime / Noir / Thriller , add a comment
‘When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s…it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere.’
It’s quite rare that writing, acting, editing and directing collide at the very same intersection in time and space, producing a piece of work that could be said to be perfect, but 1941’s The Maltese Falcon is such a movie.
Quite simply, it is a scintillating, head spinning, exhilarating directorial debut by screenwriter John Huston, a maverick talent who is somewhat undervalued today (but not by you, gentle reader).
One of the reasons Huston, who had long been lobbying to direct, was given the job was because Warners were anxious to grab some of the limelight away from RKO and their wunderkind, a certain Mr Welles - ‘See? We got one here too!’
That they did, earning the plaudits of critics and setting the cash registers ringing, a combination that warmed the coal black heart of Jack Warner. But in making a commercial and critical success, Huston and his team also set the trend for a whole new genre. The influence of German expressionist cinema gave the film a look that no other detective movie had hitherto enjoyed; cinematographer Arthur Edeson had a whale of a time playing with unusual camera angles and a brilliantly imaginative use of light and shadow that would become a staple of what became known as Film Noir.
While Warners wanted a Welles spin for the film, they hedged their bets by giving their own ‘boy wonder’ a tight shooting schedule and a miniscule budget, (Jack being the big spending studio head everyone wanted to work for…) the kind of artistic straitjacket that bounding free from sometimes stimulates, as in this case (and in the case of Halloween, to make a topical reference), a film crew to give of their finest work.
Huston also faced the problem of ‘The Code’. The Hays Office had no such hold over the 1931 version, but even so, for all that film’s shots of disheveled couches and rolls of bills tucked down stockinged legs, it hasn’t half the electricity of this film made a decade later. There’s no ambiguity, Code or not, about the sexuality of ‘Cairo’, ‘Gutman’ or ‘Wilmer’, no coyness over the lusty affair of ‘Sam’ (the first really great anti-hero, others vying for the crown being on the side of ‘bad’ rather than ‘good’) and ‘Brigid’, or even over Sam and ‘Miles’s’ bed-hopping activities.
Warners, watching every last cent, gave Huston a cast on the cheap; Bogart, a contract player, had spent years being the villainous fall guy for a role call of the studio’s stars. After finally impressing as a lead in High Sierra, Bogie would at last make it into the big time as ‘Sam Spade’. Mary Astor’s career was on the slide after revelations about her private life, but those same lurid stories would prove the spur for a lifetime best performance as her screen alter ego ‘Brigid O’Shaughnessy’. A 61-year-old man of Kent and the theatre, who had never before acted on screen, Sydney Greenstreet would make as stunning a debut as his young director - by God, sir, he would - and the marvellous Peter Lorre would complete a quartet who would go down in cinema history.
When Warners told Huston to crack the whip and quicken the pace, or face overshooting his schedule, the young debutant, whose mentor was Howard Hawks, reacted by urging his actors to deliver their lines in quickfire ‘Hawksian’ manner. From the opening scene to the closing credits, The Maltese Falcon never lets up. There’s not a spare moment, not an ounce of padding. Huston even manages to cram more of Dashiell Hamett’s novel into the action by a simple narrative trick; the telephone call. There are a number throughout the film, no need to cut to another set, no useless exposition between characters to deaden the pace. Beautifully done. What might be otherwise considered ‘talkie’ is riveting, the dialogue zinging about the screen like hand grenades tossed between opposing trenches.
Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective, wrote about what he knew, the underbelly of San Francisco, the knife in the back alley, the blurring of the lines of good guys and bad. His ‘Sam Spade’ is almost an emotional vacuum, but it was the young director and Bogart who, together, really breathed life into him. Huston brought these real people to the screen, and we can believe in each and every one of them, from the moral ambiguity of Spade (’Here’s to crime…’), who ends the film having had, as another Bogart character famously would, his insides kicked out, to the prissy, orally fixated ’Joel Cairo’ (’Gardenias? Shoo him in Effie darling…’), the driven fat man ’Kasper Gutman’ (’I'll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk…’) and even Elisha Cook Jr.’s beautifully sketched ‘Wilmer’, tears welling in his puppy dog eyes as Spade goads the inept gunsel into one last rash act.
Bogart himself is at last given a role to stretch his acting chops; his Spade couldn’t give a damn when Miles (Jerome Cowan) is found dead, after all, he’s been cuckolding him for a while now. But whatever else happens, whoever else gets in the way, he has to bring his killer to justice. He’s as cold as a cadaver with ‘Iva’ (Gladys George), at first amused then aroused by Brigid, he impresses Gutman (Greenstreet) with his sharp wit and resourcefulness, and the look of pure evil - genuine relish - on his face when he first disarms then cracks Cairo (Lorre) on the chin is worth the price of the film alone (well, either that or Brigid booting poor Joel with a stinging right stiletto…)
But the more I watch The Maltese Falcon, the more impressed I am with Mary Astor’s performance as the deadly Brigid. She has to match Bogie scene for scene, but at the same time, like Ginger Rogers, who famously had to do everything Fred did but in high heels and backwards, she is playing the role of a woman who is playing many roles. Ms O’Shaughnessy is an accomplished liar and sexual predator who ensnares men then disposes of them like last night’s pizza. Or like a goldfish down the toilet. She’s the quintessential femme fatale, which for Sam, is half the attraction. ‘Now you are dangerous…’ laughs Spade, licking his lips in anticipation.
There’s a tangible electricity between Astor and Bogart that gives their screen relationship a verité that makes the denouement all the more tragic. This isn’t just Bogie’s film, as much as it wouldn’t be the absolute classic it is without him, it’s very much an ensemble piece, a piece about greed, acquisitiveness and the dangers of getting what you wish for.
And having said that the ‘Falcon’ represents movie nirvana, from the whole of the cast to Adolph Deutsch’s magnificent score, Robert Haas’s sets and Perc Westmore’s makeup, there is one thing I’m curious about. There’s an obvious edit when Iva Archer visits Sam at his office (and I think I’m right in saying another right at the end, with maybe a line or two snipped); they clinch, Sam attempts to calm Iva down, then - cut, and she’s out the door. I’d love to see the footage that originally existed there and know why it was cut, if indeed it was; I haven’t listened yet to the DVD commentary, maybe the answer is there.
Warners R1 Special Edition DVD is (pack issues aside, see my previous post) almost as perfect as the film itself. The latest transfer is quite beautiful; my old R2 was excellent, but there was evidence of some marks and a couple of dupey sections, wrongs which have now been righted. The extras are pretty good, though the ‘talking heads’ documentary is a little superfluous I expect it might be useful for those who are unfamiliar with the film or its stars.
Watching the 1931 version only served to show just how far the art form of film had come since the introduction of sound just over a decade earlier, just what an enormous talent John Huston was, and an early chance to explore the difference between a film that is ’explicit’ and one that is ’grown-up’. I’m filled with trepidation over the second version of the film in this set, Dieterle’s Satan Met a Lady, which looks dreadful.
Of Huston’s early work, I’m pushed to decide which is better; The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the The Sierra Madre or The Asphalt Jungle. The cowards way out is to go for the draw, so that’s what I’ll do.
A Day In The Life of An Obsessive / Compulsive… October 26, 2006Posted by John Hodson in : General, DVD News & Info , 5 comments
This is madness.
Work is piled high on my desk, I have a million and one tasks facing me, each one a challenge for any highly skilled individual (y’know; breathe in - breathe out - breathe in - breathe…), places to go, people to see. And what’s been preoccupying my day?
My Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection 2 arrived this morning. And there is no slipcase wrapped around The Maltese Falcon three-disc SE. That’s it. Nothing earth shaking, nothing exciting, nothing to get het up about. Nothing.
Not even anything that affects the content of this fantastic box set. Except there is no slipcase wrapped around The Maltese Falcon.
Now look, I’m a fairly rational guy (well, fairly), I know what matters in this crazy world and what doesn’t amount to a hill o’beans. But - God help me - there is no slipcase.
I stare at the box, hoping that one will materialise out of the ether. I slap myself around the chops (I do, I actually slap myself. I’ll take it and like it…), telling the inner me to pull himself together. But look - I just want this to be perfect. This most entertaining, thrilling, brilliant of film classics has been reborn as an all new Special Edition, digitally spruced up, beautiful - I mean goddamned gorgeous - with a host of extras. But it’s emerged into my world blemished. There. Is. No. Slipcase.
The box sits there and drools at me. The slimcases inside beg for an extra couple of millimetres so that they can stand proud and erect. But (have I mentioned this before?) there is no slipcase around The Maltese Falcon, so they slump, sadly, together, like lifers in the Big House. Especially the two slimcases that form the ‘Falcon’ set, as if they’re both frightened of bending for the soap. With no slipcase to protect them. The box itself resembles an inverse Kasper Gutman, the sides sucking themselves in to take up the slack of the space within. It wilts. It won’t stand upright.
There is no slipcase, y’see?
The box lies. It does you know. Pictures on the box show the artwork from the slipcase (the one that has apparently joined the choir eternal), just to show me exactly what I’m missing. ‘This is what you could have had’ it yells‘ if only either (a) you’d have bought the The Maltese Falcon individually or (b) Warners had got their FUCKING ACT TOGETHER!’
Calm down now. It’s only a slipcase. The slipcase that is not there. Missing. Not included. Not actually in my possession. Omitted. Not present (or correct). Unaccounted for. Stood on a shelf in Burbank next to the big sign that reads ‘For the Humphrey Bogart box sets - Do Not Forget!’ I’m not the only one. Do I take comfort in that? Not for one second. I want my slipcase. My slipcase.
I email my etailer - Movietyme - and they basically tell me that, okay, but-this-is-how-they-came-to-us-and-it’s-not-our-fault-and-please-don’t-bother-us-again. So there. I wince, but I know who to blame. How could you Jack Warner (or is it Ted Turner. I forget)? But then I remember Jack Warner. A total penny-pinching bastard. And dead. I’m screwed (slipcase wise). I feel like such a sucker. Like Miles, I too would have followed that dame down the alley. Gat in pocket. Overcoat buttoned. Without a slipcase.
So I sit here. Not working, not going places or seeing anyone, my brain beginning to itch. Not watching the damned films in the damned Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection 2. Thinking about something that isn’t here and how to get it. No, not the black bird.
Cause for (even) More Celebration October 19, 2006Posted by John Hodson in : DVD News & Info, British Film , add a comment
Further to my pleas (see Cause for More Celebration) for more British made classics to be made available on DVD, I’m delighted to see DD Home Entertainment is set to release a number of great value box sets containing some real British made gems early next month:
Classic Gregory Peck Box Set - The Boys From Brazil, The Million Pound Note and The Purple Plain.
Classic Ralph Richardson Box Set - Silver Fleet, School for Secrets and The Day will Dawn.
Classic Alec Guinness Box Set - The Card, The Quiller Memorandum and The Malta Story.
Big Screen Sitcoms Box Set - The Army Game, Nearest And Dearest and The Larkins.
All At Sea Box Set - Carry on Admiral, Up The Creek and Further Up The Creek.
Boys Own Adventures Box Set - The Four Feathers, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Riddle Of The Sands.
Classic David Niven Box Set - Carrington VC, A Matter of Life and Death and The Way Ahead.
Classic H.G. Wells Box Set - Things to Come, The Man Who Could Work Miracles and The History of Mr Polly.
Classic Richard Attenborough Box Set - The Gift Horse, School for Secrets and Sea Of Sand.
Wings Of Victory Box Set - Appointment In London, The Lion Has Wings and Reach For The Sky.
Warriors Beneath The Waves Box Set - Above Us The Waves, Morning Departure and We Dive At Dawn.
DDHE is a mail order home entertainment operation whose catalogue doesn’t seem to be available at every etailer online, though, as you can see, they can be bought direct and are carried by the likes of Moviemail and to a lesser degree Play.com. Through a convoluted deal with Granada Ventures, they have access to Granada’s vast library of films, at times putting out titles that have also been licensed to Network, though not always to the same spec (their The Quiller Memorandum has no extras for instance). I’d also be wary of their The Boys from Brazil which is more than likely the same non-anamorphic version that has been around for some time. I’m eager to see Network bring this out as a special edition sometime soon.
DD’s releases aren’t always barebones however; their Hammer titles - including the The Quatermass Xperiment - come with some nice extras and Things to Come has a comprehensive booklet. The quality of transfers varies from the really very good to the downright awful, depending on the source material.
Something Wicked This Way Comes… October 17, 2006Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film General, Horror , 4 comments
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Seen any scary movies recently? Anything that makes your skin crawl, the hairs stand up, cat-like, on the back of your neck, that make you rush for a light switch in a darkened room?
How about one that makes you peek at the screen through your fingers (Casualty doesn’t count - that’s not ’scary’, that’s ’squeamish’. And I’m not just talking Simon McCorkindale’s acting), or quicken your step down that dark alley?
Tough one isn’t it? After all, it’s only moving pictures, men and women dressing up and pretending, and I’m a little older now than the days when Daleks or Yeti sent me scurrying behind the sofa at Saturday teatime, so my buttons aren’t quite so easily pressed. Or are they…
I must admit to avoiding the mirror on that 3am trip to the bathroom, eyes half open, a still unrisen sun casting an eerie monochrome shroud over the bedroom. I know there’s nothing in the mirror, I won’t see some misshapen ghoul gazing at me with hideous yellow eyes, just over my shoulder, from the glass.
I know. So I clamp my eyes tight shut and won’t look.
When I return home late at night alone, park the car, walk the handful of yards to the front door, I know there’s nothing waiting for me in the shrubs. Nothing mean and slavering, nothing other wordly with blood shot eyes, red in tooth, claw and intent, waiting to tear me limb from quaking limb. So, again, I don’t even look. I just hurry as I try, hands trembling ever so slightly, to jam the key in the lock and hurry inside, the hot breath of imagination on my collar. Nothing to be afraid of, save a totally irrational fear of fear itself.
Each one of us has a different threshold of fear. I recall, quite clearly, sitting in a cinema audience that were laughing - in all the wrong places - at Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The chap next to me professed to being an aficionado of The Hills Have Eyes, so Kubrick’s horror film must have seemed like just another Grimm fairy tale compared to that particular nightmare. Not for him the beautiful compositions of Mr Kubrick, the high-wire thespianism of Mr Nicholson. Bring on the cinema of the abattoir…
But gore stuffed films about serial killers - families of inbred mutant serial killers, killers with chainsaws, axes, or a liking for fresh liver and Chianti - have never been high on my watch list, even if some, against my expectations, have turned out to be better or classier - even funnier - than their premise (Psycho or Hannibal for instance).
No, first Universal and their series of 1930s and ’40s monster movies and then Hammer from the ’50s to the ’70s, aided and abetted by piles of imported American horror magazines devoted to the genre (containing handy tips on how to recreate the magic of Jack Pierce in the comfort of your own home with, say a little flour and lots of ketchup…), gave me that first frisson of fear. I’m still a big fan; do they scare me? Well, no, not really, but they do call up from the dark recesses of my memory the feelings of fear from decades ago, which might be some kind of second hand scare. Besides, I’m mightily entertained and thrilled by films that did genuinely have cinema audiences screaming.
My mother, who is old enough to recall, tells me of people actually fleeing the local flea pit when James Whale’s Frankenstein was shown in the ’30s, and there were similar scenes 20-odd years later when the camera dollied in on Christopher Lee, tearing off his bandages and snarling with feral intent at Peter Cushing. Do I flee, either physically or metaphorically, now? Obviously not, we denizens of the 21st century have simply seen too much, but my heart still beats a little faster at these images of this ghoulish, unstoppable monster that I know could, if it so desired, thrust its fist into my chest and emerge clutching my still beating heart, dripping life’s blood from between the creature’s boney fingers. Despite my protestations, am I not just a little bit frightened? If I’m honest, maybe…
Strange when De Niro’s creature did that very thing in Ken Branagh’s 1994 version of the story, it wasn’t in the least terrifying. Not seeing it was more terrible somehow (or maybe, in deference to Kathy Burke, I was cheered by the fact that it was Helen Bonham Carter who was the victim); now the camera lingers too long, the buckets of Kensington Gore are filled to the brim. Less really is more, for this viewer at least.
Watching in quick succession Paul Schrader’s Exorcist prequel Dominion and Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon last weekend provided two excellent examples of just what I’m attempting to explain. Dominion, with its God-awful levitating demon, it’s piss-poor cliche ridden script and pathetic ‘good’ (in this instance the Catholic Church) versus ‘evil’ (Satan and all his hoardes, natch) premise was about as scary as your average episode of Buffy. What do these demons want, I found myself asking halfway through; world domination? Death and destruction? For me to vote Republican? Or put three sugars in my tea? Do I care? Do I buggery…
MR James however tapped into an ancient irrationality, a fear of something as old as time itself, with his story Casting The Runes, brought vividly to life in Night of The Demon. It’s a tribute to Tourneur that the marionette (modelled on a slightly angry looking Irish Wolfhound) foisted on him by the producers, doesn’t diminish the power of the story of a rational man of science stalked by the promise of a ghastly death. The image of Niall MacGinnis conjuring up a hellish supernatural storm, dressed as some kind of clown from Hades is fabulously creepy. I know exactly what Julian Karswell (almost certainly based on Aleister Crowley; a contemporary of James) wants; he wants money, pots of it, and a long, comfortable, life…the price is his soul. A deal many of us have mulled over at some point in our lives, I suspect. Some of the scariest moments are simple shadows, shards of light, a few puffs of smoke and the wheeling sound of some antediluvian evil, gathering its power, in the distance.
Now, do I believe all this mumbo jumbo? You betcha. Hook, line and big daft doll…
And that’s the key to some of cinema’s best monsters isn’t it? Unseen terrors; humungous rubber sharks and big guys in even bigger rubber suits aren’t scary, but the audience, given the right suggestion of terror, can create visions of monsters better than the best special effects. Monsters from the id.
Among my recently watched pile were a trio of BBC TV ’Ghost Story for Christmas’ adaptations, made with little budget, no special effects to speak of, but which still, I’m pleased to report, hold the power to make the pulse race some three decades on from first broadcast. What scared me in Whistle and I’ll Come to You? A bed sheet being dragged along on a piece of string and an eerie understated soundtrack; and it did, it truly did. What about The Signalman? The look of horror, sheer bloody visceral terror, on Denholm Elliot’s face and the ringing of an otherwise unheard bell. A Warning to the Curious? A black clad shade, first glimpsed as if from the corner of one’s eye, then hurtling hell for leather through the woods, illuminated by a watery winter sun, the merciless thing’s hand raised to strike. MR James again and Dickens; class will out.
Which brings me to Nigel Kneale who tied all these fears together very neatly in Quatermass & The Pit, ancient horrors ‘rationalised’ through science. Kneale’s boogie men, his ghosts, are made all the more real when science provides the answers (it’s for that reason that I find Carpenter’s Kneale tribute Prince of Darkness better than many would have me believe). What’s really scary here is that science, as we know, can never fully control it’s manifestations. Once the genie is out of the bottle, can we get it back in? Ask Kim Jong-il.
Speaking of ‘real’ terror and I must come to Nic Roeg’s sublime Don’t Look Now, a film wherein almost every character has some form of psychic power, but what is it? A British ‘horror’ film (it has been described as such)? A thriller? An exploration of coincidence, the supernatural, the ties that invisibly bind the human family? A love story? However you describe it, it’s a fabulous piece of film-making and and I’m really looking forward to Optimum’s forthcoming DVD special edition, Roeg commentary and all.
Of all the ’scary’ movies I’ve watched and rewatched recently, this is the only one that had the power to genuinely terrify, that leaves me sweaty and agitated, my gorge rising; and that’s only the first scene. Maybe, just maybe, that was one of Mary Shelley’s subtexts in Frankenstein, the petrifying obligation of being a parent, of being responsible for a life.
Real life. Scares the hell out of me…
Hearts and Bones October 11, 2006Posted by John Hodson in : Action / Adventure / Thriller, Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , add a comment
It’s slightly odd that Steve McQueen followed up Le Mans with another film that has a documentary feel to it, Junior Bonner. Both films take realistic looks at real sporting events, with huge amounts of footage shot both during the famous French 24 hours race, and the oldest rodeo in the world, at Prescott, Arizona. And you can write the plots of each on the back of a fag packet (actually the ‘plot’ of Le Mans, is virtually contained within the title.)
But that’s where the similarity ends. It’s as if Peckinpah had seen McQueen’s personal and very, very expensive racing movie and decided he’d show him just how it could and should be done.
If Le Mans is about anything at all, it’s about a racing driver doing what most racing drivers do at some time in their lives; confronting his fears, coming to terms with a past failure. Ostensibly, Junior Bonner’s main plot-line - not the theme it must be pointed out - is precisely the same, but while we know absolutely nothing about the characters at the of Le Mans - and frankly could care less - Peckinpah lays out the life of a family about whom we come to care very much indeed.
Le Mans (1971)
By the time negotiations for Le Mans began, Steve McQueen, a ‘petrol head’ since his teens, was a true Hollywood superstar, his place in the firmament having been cemented by Peter Yates’ thrilling Bullitt. He could pick and choose his roles, practically name his own price, and thus had at his disposal the best damned toy box in the world.
Fulfilling a dream, he choose to make a film about motorsport; the American race scene had already been covered (by Paul Newman at the Indianapolis 500 in 1969’s Winning), as had the Grand Prix circuit in John Frankenheimer’s eponymous 1966 film (McQueen was courted for the part that eventually went to Jim Garner); so the day / night race at Le Mans it was.
Jointly produced by McQueen’s company Solar and Cinema Center 100, the movie making arm of CBS (who ploughed a vast $6m into the project, which included $750,000 for the star, plus points). Nothing was too good for McQueen who demanded, and got, total control. Can you hear any alarm bells yet, gentle reader?
The best racing drivers in the world were hired, not simply to give the race scenes an adrenalin fuelled vérité, but also, one suspects, so that McQueen could join their company for a while, get behind the wheel and actually become one of these tarmacadam gladiators. The stuff of fantasy…or a recipe for disaster.
It was at this point that the wheels started to come off…
Director John Sturges had a vision of a tragic love story with Le Mans simply as the backdrop. McQueen demanded that the focus of the film be on the track. One of them had to go, and with Sturges went much of his footage, which the star deemed unusable. In came hired gun Lee H. Katzin (largely a TV director) at the helm, but it was McQueen calling the shots. Reshooting meant the budget ballooned and there was also the little problem of the script. Which wasn’t quite finished…
CBS smelt trouble, shut down production and even considered paying off McQueen and bringing in a more pliable name. $1.5m over budget and two months late they completed the film; McQueen was involved in two horrendous smashes (from which he walked away), former F1 driver David Piper wasn’t so lucky, losing part of a leg (he’s thanked ‘for his sacrifice’ in the end credits). Not long after the film’s release in the States, McQueen went bankrupt and Solar virtually ceased to function as a production company. No, it wasn’t a happy time for the man who was - is - the very essence of cool.
So what do we have? In the end, we have a film with almost no narrative and the fact that it’s some 37 minutes in before we hear a line of intelligible dialogue tells its own story. McQueen’s Michael Delaney arrives at Le Mans staring moodily at the repaired Armco barrier where, the previous year, his car had been involved in an accident that lead to the death of a young Italian driver.
The driver’s widow Lisa Belgetti (Elsa Anderson) is back again, having hitched her wagon to another racer. Delaney and Belgetti are joined by tragedy and…well, there’s not much ‘and’, just the glimmers of the love story Sturges wanted. The rest is just racing, and it’s on the track that Le Mans excels with some terrific footage.
Whatever else you might think - and critics hated it - Le Mans does have what is undoubtedly some of the finest racing footage captured on film. It puts the viewer right in the centre of the action, particularly in the pivotal crash sequence which is beautifully staged and edited, breathtaking in its violence, and sheer daring; remember folks - no CGI. But, ultimately, it’s not enough. The action is exciting only in a superficial way; we simply don’t really care whether Michael wins, gets the girl, or dies in the attempt. It’s somehow a little too dry and dusty, like old bones. Not enough meat, too little flesh.
What is fascinating however, is that, today some 35 years after seeing it for the first time, it can be viewed as a wonderful period piece, a beautiful snapshot of time and place. With it’s shots of the crowds - watching, waiting, under canvas in the forests - it’s a time capsule, from the fashions and hairstyles, to the brutish cars, even the people look different, inhabitants of a very different planet. Pale and wan, badly fed, badly groomed; 36 years ago and it might as well be a 100.
It easily conjures smells of spilt petrol and greasy lukewarm burgers, hot rubber, cold petit déjeuner, summer rain and the dregs of last night’s Bordeaux glugged as a morning pick me up. It’s this documentary aspect of Le Mans that means, for me at least, that the film is getting to be a better viewing experience with age.
In both R1 and R2, Le Mans comes barebones, but it does have the benefit of a very nice transfer by Paramount, with good strong, vibrant colours and decent sound. Not up to the standard of Warners recent Grand Prix, but still acceptable.
What is the point of this story?
What information pertains?
The thought that life could be better
Is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.
Junior Bonner (1972)
Junior Bonner also failed to set the box office on fire, but having almost worked with McQueen on The Cincinnati Kid, Sam Peckinpah - fired from that film after only a few days - and Steve set to work together again, ultimately coming up with a film that stands today as amongst the best in both their filmographies. In fact, they enjoyed the experience that much that it was a matter of months before they were both back before the cameras again in a film that put both of their careers back on track. Huzzah!
Ironically one of the reasons Junior Bonner failed at the box office was that it was marketed as some kind of all-action cowboy flick, and failed signally to meet those expectations. While The Getaway, which satisfied both wrong-headed critics and audiences that here was a ‘typical’ outing from ‘Bloody Sam’, was the huge hit that both Sam and Steve needed. But it was far from being representative of Peckinpah, who knew what was was needed of him and completed the film with a consummate professionalism. You want action flick? You got it…
It was the artist, not just the artisan, then that chaired Junior Bonner, getting the most out of a slight story and the most out of Steve McQueen, one of the most charismatic stars of the past half century, and a man who could dictate to the camera a page of dialogue with a single look.
The film starts with fading rodeo star Junior ‘JR’ Bonner, riding old Sunshine; never was there more contrarily named animal. He’s a Herculian black bull from Hell, two tons of snorting, bucking, stomping, plain ornery beefsteak. JR straps himself to the back of this beast, his bête noir, and his job is to stay there for eight seconds. Eight long seconds.
After picking himself up out of the sawdust and nursing a couple of cracked ribs, JR decides that he’ll ride ol’ Sunshine again, at his home town Rodeo at Prescott, and he’ll beat him. Or to hell with it. Once back in town, JR’s appearance gradually brings the disparate Bonner clan back together one last time - while waiting in the ring is Sunshine, as mean and moody as ever.
This is a modern day western, but it’s suffused with that ‘end of trail’ melancholy that Peckinpah did so well. McQueen is perfection itself as JR, grimacing as he straps up those ribs, walking, shoulders slumping, back to a battered old convertible that, like its owner, has seen better days.
We know exactly the territory we’re in within minutes of the opening, JR pitching up at his dad’s tar-paper shack, finding it abandoned, along with the framed photos of ‘Ace’ Bonner’s own glory rodeo days. Both Ace and his boy are men out of their time, a fact underlined when Peckinpah has JR staring down a gigantic earth mover on the road outside, and having to back down in the face of this, this…progress. As he tries to find his way out of a maze of construction workers and machinery, JR looks on helplessly as Ace’s home is ripped apart and flattened by predatory ‘dozers, seeming for all the world like jackals at the carcass of a lion.
We never find out exactly why Ace (Robert Preston), and Ellie (the excellent Ida Lupino) parted; we don’t need to. Ace has always been a dreamer, a ‘good times just around the corner’ guy, who can’t keep a dollar, or his dick, in his jeans. He needs just one more grubstake, enough to get him to Australia where the streets are awash with gold just dying to leap out of the dusty earth into his hands. One last dream.
Ace’s youngest son, Curly Bonner (Joe Don Baker) and his joyless, pinched-up shrew of a wife, sure won’t be the ones to provide it. They slapped $15,000 into Ace’s sweaty hands for his dirty little spread, not the full market value, but then, Ace was in debt up to his bandana and Curly was on hand with the greenbacks. No more from Curly; thanks to that little deal, he’s heavy into real estate and as he tells JR, he’s on his way to his first million ‘while you’re still trying to get to eight seconds.’
Ace tries to stick JR for the dough; Junior has to tell daddy he’s ‘busted’. That first meeting in God knows how long between father and son is beautifully done; Ace signs himself out of the local hospital, steals JR’s horse to join the Rodeo parade through Main Street, and JR catches up with him. They gallop through the parade, whoopin’ and hollerin’, Sam editing the scene with the touch of a master, before he gets them to the railroad station - father and son.
Curly might be like his mom, intelligent, ambitious, but the apple that is JR didn’t fall far from the tree that is Ace. Peckinpah has them split, figuratively, and literally by the tracks, when Ace realises his last chance has been lost. Wordlessly, he draws them back together as Ace sees in JR what he once was, and Junior sees what’s coming up for him.
If elegiac westerns are largely about decay and death, and how we cope with those twin inevitable, inexorable shadows, then Junior Bonner deals with them on two levels. JR is not a ‘has been’, he’s a ‘never really was’, and he’s got one last chance to prove to nobody other than himself that he’s still capable of looking the world right in the eye and spitting in it. He’s at ‘that’ age, not that old, not that young, it’s all just a state of mind.
Ace, with 20 or so years on his kid, has the same dream, that vision of all old men, of riding into the sunset head held high. Somewhere out there Ace will make it. He knows it, all he needs is a chance. One last chance to make it big. And who can deny him that?
Peckinpah is said to have put much of himself into the film, and in particular his relationship with his own father. He mostly kept his own demons at bay throughout the shooting, only hitting the bottle towards the end of the schedule; he needed to be fully focused. It might sound as if it’s a heavy, somewhat miserable slice of cinema, and if I’ve given you, dear reader, that impression I apologise wholeheartedly for my ham-fisted prose. It is in fact a beautifully acted and directed piece, at it’s core a joyful film and tremendously life affirming. Above all, a very human story with a great big heart - Peckinpah does great ‘human’.
The rodeo scenes are choreographed and seamlessly edited with Peckinpah’s customary precision, the comedy punch-up has a Fordian charm, the whole has an air of romance, of genuine affection for the characters, for place and for family. Even the minor roles are wonderfully played, some of the good folks of Prescott getting in on the act (not to mention the Peckinpah offspring). On screen are ‘real’ people we can all identify with, even the grasping Curly and the delusional, but eternally charming Ace.
I’ve mentioned it before, but nowhere better than associated with this film to bring it up again; I believe that Sam Peckinpah was the true successor to John Ford. It’s a crying shame Hollywood didn’t appreciate the fact when he was alive.
If you’re considering buying Junior Bonner on DVD for goodness sake don’t purchase the UK R2 which is a pan and scan travesty. The R1, like all the ABC catalogue films presented by MGM, might be non-anamorphic, but it’s in OAR ’scope, quite a decent if not stellar transfer and has the benefit of a commentary track from the guys who shall be forever known as ‘The Peckinpah Posse’ - Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, moderated by Nick Redman…and very informative it is too.
*Oh, before I forget; those Paul Simon lyrics? Well, obviously they don’t feature in either of the films. But Hearts and Bones has been buzzing about my head recently, and, well, those words seem so right…let’s dedicate it to Ace Bonner shall we?