Football As Never Before February 4, 2012Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews , 4 comments
To Be The Best…
Saturday, September 12, 1970. A watery northern European sun lights a crisp autumn afternoon at Old Trafford, where a crowd of 48,939 fans of Association Football have gathered to watch Manchester United of the English First Division play Coventry City.
It was also the day where Hellmuth Costard, one of the most important experimental film makers in German cinema during the 1960s and ’70s, used eight 16mm cameras to follow every single move over the 90 minutes of the blindingly beautiful number 11 in the iconic red jersey. The most famous footballer on my planet; George Best.
Costard’s 1971 film - Fußball wie noch nie (Football As Never Before) - is a homage to the then 24-year-old Belfast born genius. And in an age where fans of The Beautiful Game can languidly choose to see a match in comparable fashion via satellite or cable, and will no doubt have seen the similarly structured Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, it’s possibly difficult to understand just how unique Costard’s film was. Indeed, four decades ago, the idea of such a film, such apparent cultish worship of an individual was undoubtedly a slightly bizarre concept.
Best, or rather the selling of the “mercurial Best”, was the progenitor of today’s hyper-inflated, hyperventilating, Premier League marketeering. Everybody wanted a piece of the man; he was a fashion icon, the gossip columnists dream, pop records were written about him, his every move was followed by long lenses. Women wanted him, men wanted to be him. And ultimately his decline and fall from grace was noted in the finest detail by a slavering press pack, charted in quite horrifying slow motion over the next agonising 35 years. “Where did it all go wrong Mr Best?” was the punchline of a popular contemporary joke. Which turned out not to be especially funny.
For while Costard was filming Best at his very zenith in terms of fame, success and tabloid notoriety, what he wasn’t to know was that Best, and particularly the team he was playing for, were already on the ebb.
Within three months - while Costard was in post-production - with mighty Manchester United struggling, Wilf McGuinness, Matt Busby’s anointed successor at Old Trafford, would be out and Busby back in the hot-seat. It would only delay, not assuage, their eventual downfall. Best, the most naturally talented footballer of not only his generation, but arguably ever, was already well down the path where addiction would eventually kill him.
And thus, Costard’s experimental film takes on a new significance; not only of a real time snap-shot of a unique individual but also as an invaluable record of a bygone era. Indeed, whenever clips of Best in action are required for broadcast today, invariably Costard’s footage is trawled. Of Fußball wie noch nie, the director himself was said to be excited by the freedom afforded by using multiple lightweight cameras. Costard said: “Artists using these small-scale tools increasingly appreciated the intimacy of the screening situations and the low-key and fragile qualities of the image and spontaneity that…filming allowed.”
Using his various camera angles, Costard keeps the lens tight on Best, sometimes on only parts of the man, those tanned legs, scarred by intimate encounters with the likes of Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris, his back, shorts, socks, crotch, or the (probably) Catholic medallion that hangs round his neck. We see Best warming up, pre-titles, Costard’s single microphone planted near to the away fans, hence the anachronistic chants of “City! City!”, and the cries that “We hate Stepney”, Alex of that name replaced in goal for the day by a nervous, but under-employed (as it turns out), Jimmy Rimmer. It was to prove that kind of season.
Boy: Who are you today, sir? Liverpool?
Mr Sugen: Don’t you know your club colours? Manchester United, this.
Boy: Are you playing Denis Law, striker?
Mr Sugden: No. Charlton today, lad. All over the field. Too cold for striker.
Boy: Charlton’s not as quick ont’ turn as Law, is he?
Mr Sugden: You tryin’ to tell me about football?
Boy: No. I…
Mr Sugden: You trying to tell me? Anyway, Denis Law’s in the wash this week.
Ken Loach’s Kes (1969)
The viewer only gets fleeting glimpses of the other United players as Best ambles, sometimes seemingly alone on a pitch that is variously jade green or turquoise (the wear and tear of ages on the film elements), from box to box. In a flash, the Irishman stiffens the sinews and transmogrifies into a supernatural blur of red and white, his change of pace absolutely spine-tingling, shirts of sky-blue in his imperious wake. Time and again, the predatory Best scouts for every opportunity, but there’s little meat on the bone of the first half.
On the terraces the crowds look like they’ve been airlifted in from another planet - mostly older men, working men, higher up the stands, lots of spectacles, neat suit jackets and ties - ties! - flat caps, an almost universal factory pallor. At the front, tousle haired kids, banging on the advertising hoardings, scarves knotted round their wrists, gleefully joining the chant of “Fuck off City!” Easy to remember lyrics. Handily.
It’s recognisably Old Trafford; no prawn sandwiches, they were still to come, but a slightly subdued atmosphere from the home crowd, only really fired into life by the first goal. But not yet…
At the interval, we follow Best - in a sequence clearly shot at a different time - glancing over his shoulder to invite us wordlessly on backstage at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’. He’s bearded and alone, standing in an empty, unprepossessing and unlit room, a tight head shot, the whiff of old socks, stale sweat and Wintergreen. Best turns to face us and for fully three minutes, we stand toe to toe.
The great man, alone with his thoughts - we peer into his mind, and he into ours. Is the shot saying that he’s a different man at half-time, that he truly is alone? Like the film as a whole, it’s deeply fascinating, hypnotic, and certainly homoerotic. On and on he stares. And on and on we stare back. Best licks his lips, then looks down. Almost as if he’s come to a decision. Or made a deal with his Gods.
After a first half during which he appears to say not one word to neither friend, nor foe, Best emerges to the pitch for the second period and flashes that trademark smile just before kick-off. It’s a good sign, for inside six minutes his lazy amble becomes that blur once more; with effortless economy, Best takes the ball down off his right thigh and it’s glued to his boot. One on one, a jink to the left and the red/white blur leaves the Coventry ‘keeper grasping at shadows as Best slots the ball into the net. The crowd erupts in acclaim. 1-0.
Five minutes after that, Best has the opposition defence in a panic once more. On the edge of the box, he eschews showy individuality and instead casually stabs the ball to his right. It’s only when he moves to congratulate the scorer that we see that it was Bobby Charlton who has made it 2-0. Best - El Beatle as he was dubbed by the Portuguese press two years previously - with his mane of luxurious jet black hair and thick mutton chop sideburns, steps forward to rather formally shake the hand of a stone-faced Charlton, his comb-over overcome by the merest breeze.
Costard’s cameras capture two eras; the almost other worldly Best, all ‘Swinging ’70s’, for whom this football lark is ridiculously easy, and the consummate professional Charlton, for whom the ’60s apparently never existed, who treats both those imposters just the same and who refuses to crack a smile until the final whistle. Sometimes not even then.
For fans of the modern game, the whole experience may seem remarkably quaint. For a start there is no shrieking, hysterical commentary to distract, to inflate the ordinary into a carrier for a business generating billions. There’s the odd - and by ‘odd’ I also mean quite random - musical overdub, but the rest is natural sound. There’s also not a single name taken by a referee who looks like, any second, he may produce a pipe.
The tackles fly in, but Best just dusts himself off and gets on with it - no writhing about on the ground, begging for a name to go into the official’s book. No stoppages as such, no ‘added time’, and incredibly for Best and many others, despite the accepted physicality on show, the GBH that passes for defending, no shinpads. Moments before he scores (no coincidence; he seems fuelled by the offence), Best also takes a hefty smack in the mouth that he doesn’t complain about - except to admonish the offender - but leaves him checking that handsome face for blood for the rest of the game.
No theatrics, no hysterics, no time wasting. Just the football. It’ll never catch on.
The Frankfurter Rundschau’s film critic commented at the time that the film’s concentration on one player actually shows “the true extent to which the sport is all about teamwork.”
While that may be so - and for the politically aware Costard that may well have been his intent - it also gives a quite unique insight into the game as played in that ‘other country’ that is our past.
And a glimpse, just the merest hint, as to why, 38 years after he quite sensationally walked out of Old Trafford aged just 27, the burden of carrying a failing team simply too much for a man fighting demons on other fronts, many still think that no-one quite played The Beautiful Game as beautifully as the late, and the very great, Georgie Best.
Sincere thanks to Anthony Nield for his help in preparing this piece.
And Some Came Alone… July 1, 2011Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , 1 comment so far
Vera Cruz has unexpectedly and happily arrived on Blu-ray disc, courtesy of Fox/MGM in the US. Happily because it’s a film I love, and unexpectedly because it’s a film that has dropped off the radar of many folks, even western fans.
I first wrote about Robert Aldrich’s seminal western some time ago. That was before I was fully conversant with the mechanics of Superscope, and now that I am, it goes a long way to explaining the wildly inconsistent look of the film that I previously noted and which provoked the ire of contemporary critics.
I don’t intend to attempt to dissect the film further than I have already; this brief ‘drive by’ is simply another bid to encourage those that have not done so to seek out what I, and many others, see as an exceptional piece of work, now presented in high definition.
Fans will enjoy, as I did, John McElwee’s 2-part look at the film at his Greenbriar Picture Shows blog; his point regarding the prints, and Aldrich’s unhappiness at the Superscope conversion, makes sense - the cropping isn’t a huge disaster (setting aside the detrimental effect the Superscope process has on the film’s appearance in general), but I’d lay good money on it being framed by the brilliant Ernest Laszlo with a slightly more forgiving 1.85:1 frame in mind, whilst being protected for Academy Ratio (as often happened during this period of transition).
Having, like a kid on Christmas morning, only today ripped the cellophane off the case and watched the film through in high definition, I can’t say too much more about Vera Cruz than previously, except that, like a fine Californian Zinfandel, it gets better with age, with each and every viewing. And the barebones Blu-ray presentation (save for a garish 1.85:1 trailer in 1080p - it even lacks a conventional menu; left in the machine it plays on a loop…) is the best it has looked - or is ever likely to look - on home video.
Sourced from a very decent print, Vera Cruz has not been messed around with digitally, it’s clean and as colourful as Superscope allows and it looks like film - not much more you can ask. I’m indebted to McElwee’s blog above for, among many other things, pointing out the pocket Derringer in Duvarre’s hand at the end, which underlines the script problems they were facing. You can hardly see the gun in standard definition but it’s as clear as a bell at 1080p; the wonders of high definition.
I just love discovering something new about works I admire and am familiar with; I come over all Howard Carter standing on the threshold of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Was Duvarre to have taken a pot-shot at Joe? Was Lancaster to have gunned her down, while grinning like Captain Vallo’s evil twin? I’d still prefer a much bleaker ending; I think Aldrich had one in mind but was possibly over-ruled. It was a tough shoot.
“Vera Cruz was total improvisation because the script was always finished about five minutes before we shot it, and we’d sit right down and work it out and then shoot it as we went along. I’m not sure that’s the right way to work…”
I’m not altogether convinced (as McElwee says) that Cooper’s playing of Ben Trane was hamstrung by the star simply protecting his image; I think Trane is the ideal counterpoint to Erin, there’s no doubt he’s heavily conflicted - and having two amoral bad asses would not have made much sense. As you see from the contemporary New York Times review linked above, the savagery, the amorality, the bad table manners, didn’t go down well with critics - Aldrich was way ahead of the game in that respect.
Four final links; I have to give enormous credit to Glenn Erikson - not only did he point me at John McElwee’s blog entry, but it was the Savant who, in the first place, unlocked Vera Cruz’s potential for me as a political entity. His Blu-ray review is here. Need further convincing of the link between Aldrich and Leone? Read Roland Caputo’s wonderful essay Aldrich, Leone and Vera Cruz; Style and Substance Over The Border - I’m particularly taken with his examination and analysis of the ‘reveal’, a bravura camera move that is not only reminiscent of Leone in terms of style, but of Peckinpah in actual execution.
Blu-ray screen captures? We don’ do no steenkin’ Blu-ray ‘caps! No, beaten by technology on that front, so I have to point you elsewhere; Blu-ray.com review here and DVD Beaver’s review here. Please, please bear in mind that when it comes to screencaps, they can only be a rough guide to what you will see on your own equipment. Sound is provided by a DTS HD Master Audio mono soundtrack, which is more than good enough and another step up from previous home video incarnations.
As said, I’m far from alone in thinking Vera Cruz is an under-appreciated and influential western that deserves a greater following; punting out quality BD transfers such as this at bargain bin prices can only help do that surely?
By the way, it’s also available in Germany, but no sign, thus far, of it being offered on these shores; both discs are region free, so will play in your Blu-ray machine. No excuses, buy it now…
Crompton’s Mule… May 27, 2011Posted by John Hodson in : Comedy, Film & DVD Reviews, British Film , 1 comment so far
Spring and Port Wine
Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine was filmed in 1969, released early 1970, but based on a story conceived and written by the Bolton based playwright in mid-1950s austerity Britain.
As such, it’s ever so slightly out of time; this tale of a gentle, yet strict and starched collar stiff, family man coming to terms with the new liberalism of his post-war universe perhaps struck a chord even as the swinging ’60s drew to a close, but the synchronicity of the piece is more in tune with it’s origins. The muleish Rafe Crompton - played to perfection by Huddersfield born James Mason - reminded me of my grandfather’s generation; tightly-laced Edwardians who worked as slaves, who placed the highest value on family and thrift. Who loved deeply, but were ever so slightly horrified by waste or overt displays of affection.
Indeed, there’s a clue to the real anchor stone of the setting when Rafe talks of the the Hunger Marches of the early 1930s, being “20 years ago”. And I know of no working family of the era who would have gathered, as the Cromptons do, round the piano (piano? There’s posh…) to lustily sing their songs of praise - by 1970 it was, more likely, to have been the Dansette to join in with ‘All You Need Is Love’…
Still, that caveat aside - the same also, I feel, applies to the film of Naughton’s The Family Way by the way - it is a rather beautiful, gentle comedy from the Irish born author. Hilda Crompton (Susan George) seemingly makes a bid for independence from the iron rule of her father, Rafe, when she refuses to eat a fried herring mum Daisy (Diana Coupland) has prepared for supper (or tea; depending on which part of Lancashire you may be from, gentle reader). Rafe is adamant Hilda will eat the fish; Hilda digs in her heels. Impasse.
The herring at the centre of the plot is slightly red - and as we come to see, not quite what it appears - for here is a tale wherein not only does Rafe come to terms with a nascent feminism (although that may be overstating things slightly), but his family also comes to terms with him, this chap who fully realises the solemn responsibility of being head of a home, and all that entails; both the great weight and the immense joy.
“A home can become a prison where there isn’t love.”
Set and filmed on location not a mile from where I sit, Spring and Port Wine is the remedial nephew of the kitchen sink drama; the happier, less angry nephew, who knows his place in the world and is content with it. Reasonably.
It is undoubtedly a golden-hued portrayal of working people that’s both true and an outright lie; life was like this, the communities, the good neighbours toiling together, the neatly painted front doors, the proud little gardens. Perhaps though, only on good days.
But Spring and Port Wine doesn’t condescend - it’s a piece aimed squarely at those working classes, the film’s audience turning the glass on themselves and liking what they see. And after years of being shown that it’s all a bit grim up north - This Sporting Life, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, the inestimably brilliant but ultimately miserable Kes, et al - Peter Hammond’s film is something of a throwback in terms of a ‘poor but happy’ ethos. Yet there’s a vein of genuine affection to be seen.
It is a sweet, simple slice of ‘feel good’ propaganda showing that the toiling masses had more going on than at first meets the eye. Rafe might be an old dog, but he’s familiar with poetry, can play the piano - has a parlour big enough to hold such an instrument - and lives by an almost unbendable moral code. However, in a fast changing world, he’s not adverse to learning new tricks. He’s a role model for a new age.
Billy Fisher hasn’t the guts to get out of small town Yorkshire, Arthur Seaton has to better himself or become the withered old man Nottingham has made his father, for Colin Smith, perhaps nothing more is accomplished other than a pyrrhic victory. Rafe Crompton, with a few tweaks here and there, is comfortable in his skin and with his lot.
What the rest of the Comptons achieve is the nod from dad to help themselves to a modicum of independence, and be safe in the knowledge that family, ultimately, is all that most of us have to truly depend on, for love, for comfort. For happiness. When you get down to it, what more can you ask?
The cast is wonderful; Diana Coupland, Susan George, Rodney Bewes, Hannah Gordon and a host of familiar faces sneak in and out, Arthur Lowe, Bernard Bresslaw, Frank Windsor, Ken Parry.
It is almost wholly Mason’s show; the Yorkshireman breathes life into this patriarchal Lancastrian whether he’s striding across Bolton’s moorland, almost guiltily strutting in his new 40 guinea overcoat, or - and it’s a tiny detail but, like all Mason’s acting, so true - luxuriously washing his hands, fingernails and creases blackened by a day at the mill, in machine oil.
I’ve long liked Spring and Port Wine, but now I fancy I love it in an almost wistful fashion. As I approach Rafe’s age, I hanker after simpler times. Incidentally, Roy Baird executive produced this and If…., and both Michael Medwin (who also produced If….) and Albert Finney - ‘Arthur Seaton’ himself - were producers. There’s pedigree here.
Released in the UK a couple of years ago, apparently after an exhaustive search for elements decent enough to transfer to DVD, the not always reliable Optimum Entertainment have really come up with the goods. The transfer is simply wonderful; presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, the colours are true, it’s virtually unmarked, sharp as a tack and very film-like; only a high-definition presentation could better it and then, I fancy for most viewers, only marginally.
The mono soundtrack is adequate with Douglas Gamley’s simple but perfectly apposite score well represented.
Watching Brief; Don’t Go ‘Round Tonight… October 30, 2009Posted by John Hodson in : Horror, Film & DVD Reviews, British Film, Watching Brief , 2 comments
For Hallowe’en, Watching Brief scorns the accusations of being a corny old hack, and serves up a smörgåsbord of seasonal horror film recommendations…
The Wolf Man (R1 DVD); Suspending belief in the existence of werewolves is small beer to imagining the towering Lon Chaney Jr. as the son of the diminutive Claude Rains, not to mention Universal’s all-purpose ‘mittel yurpean’ set of what is allegedly a picturesque Welsh village. We won’t even go into the variety of mid-Atlantic accents, the absence of anyone sounding remotely like Max Boyce replaced by a veritable Cook’s Tour of the English regions, or the fact that Larry Talbot’s 18 year stay in the Land of the Free has rubbed off all the traces of his ‘little Lord Fauntleboyo’ upbringing.
Nevertheless, this Curt Siodmak scripted telling of the werewolf legend makes Talbot’s lycanthrope into the ultimate tragic horror figure, and perhaps the most interesting of Universal’s unholy three; cursed to became half man, half wolf ‘when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright’, and to kill those that are nearest and dearest to him. Well, those nearest to him are certainly in big trouble.
The Wolf Man is a thinly veiled allegory on the beast that lurks within man; Talbot is hunky dory until he’s smitten by a gal, takes her into the woods (for a, ah, walk y’know) and gets bitten by Bela the gipsy (Bela Lugosi), who isn’t, puzzlingly, half man half wolf at the time, but all wolf. Thereafter, he’s in the grip of unimaginable forces, and driven to do heavens knows what to Gwen (Evelyn Ankers). Gasp.
There’s more than one way to skin a Hays Code…
Tightly written, and neatly directed by George Waggner, with iconic makeup by the real star of The Wolf Man, the great Jack Pierce. From this distance it’s also important to underline that the special effects added a real wow factor. The transfer from Universal, is excellent; they intend to do it all over again with a new special edition DVD set, they’re just waiting on the remake to get to our cinemas early next year. A toothsome prospect. I used to be a werewolf, but (altogether now), I’m alright nooooooow-ow-ow-ooowwwwww!
Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (R1 DVD); Four years on from the incidents in The Wolf Man (only two years in filming terms), we discard the Great Big Book of Lycanthropic Legend, to bring poor, dead, hirsute Larry Talbot back to life. Open the casket, out with the wolfbane, a shaft of moonlight and pretty soon we’re all humming a snatch of the Creedence.
‘I see a bad moon risin’…
All semblance of anything that passes for logic goes out the window, as Larry seeks out Maleva (the always delightful Maria Ouspenskaya), and she has a solution to Mr Talbot’s problem. He wants to die, so let’s hit the high road to ‘Vasaria’ to find Baron Frankenstein, as he holds the secrets of life and death; who better? I mean, honestly.
‘I see trouble on the way…’
Slight impediment. Larry finds the Baron is now dead (obviously, not that much of a master of life and death), but needs to find his ‘Secret Diaries’, for within he’ll get the answers. As you would; ‘Dear Secret Diary, created a monster today, also found a way to kill werewolves, better than those rotten silver bullets (must nip down the patent office…)’
Before he does, Larry wakes the monster (Bela Lugosi), and, well, all hell breaks loose. Doctor Mannering (don’t ask) is mouthing the words of Frankenstein’s diaries like some remedial pupil in ‘Special School’, and mind bogglingly gasps: “I must see Frankenstein’s creation AT FULL POWER!” Uh, oh…
‘…don’t go ’round tonight, it’s bound to take your life…’
Poor Bela has no dialogue (ironically, the reason Lugosi turned down the James Whale original); preview audiences laughed at his Hungarian accent and all his lines were cut. Worse, the scene where the monster explains he’s nearly blind is excised, so his arms outstretched stagger looks plain daft, though it’s now the lazy, de rigueur method of impersonating said creature at fancy dress parties.
It’s deliriously loopy, but all the more lovable for it; you can imagine a young Mel Brooks watching, and taking notes. Universal’s transfer is, like many of their films from this era, quite super.
The Quatermass Xperiment (R2 DVD); seminal Hammer horror/sci-fi, from Nigel Kneale’s 1953 hit TV series, condensed for the big screen by Richard Landau and director Val Guest. It was Guest’s cunning plan to give the whole a kind of docu-drama feel, and weighing in at a lean 82 minutes (as opposed to the three hour TV production), the narrative fair gallops along. There isn’t a moment of wasted footage.
Hammer’s decision to place Americans as both the male and female leads (Margia Dean as ‘Judith Carroon’ and Brian Donlevy as ‘Professor Bernard Quatermass’) was purely commercial. Dean, it seems obvious, was post-dubbed for some reason, and as a result her performance suffers. But it’s Donlevy, slyly adding copious draughts of brandy to his flask of coffee during shooting, who usually comes in for most opprobrium - ‘over the hill’ and ‘wooden’ are two of more common, and more charitable, accusations. ‘Tom’ Kneale, it’s well known, was unhappy his quintessential English scientist had been replaced by an American tough (and usually bad) guy actor. In truth, as Guest opines on the DVD commentary track, he’s more than adequate, with his Quatermass driven, determined and no-nonsense - frankly, there’s not much screen time for anything else. Besides; I do like Donlevy, sober…or drunk. Allegedly.
While most other sci-fi (Kneale hated the term) films of the period of this kind - i.e. alien invasion - particularly Hollywood product, were simple allegories of the Cold War, Kneale’s piece could be read similarly, though the hugely influential British writer was far too complex for such a simplistic interpretation. Kneale was warning of hubris; when an arrogant, immature mankind reaches out into the unknown, he risks getting his fingers badly burnt.
It’s Richard Wordsworth’s doomed ‘Victor Carroon’ who commands the screen, the actor wordlessly conveying the nascent spaceman’s agony and sheer bloody terror as he transmogrifies into a planet threatening combination of species and lifeforms, with obvious comparisons to, and just as deadly as, the carrot from outer space that was The Thing From Another World. By the by, in his remake of the latter, John Carpenter, a huge Kneale fan, had his ‘Thing’ share a few more characteristics with Carroon than carrot…
The amiable Guest, who made his name with a series of easy going comedies, adapts to a genre that would set Hammer down a profitable path for two decades with effortless ease. He handles the screening of the spine-tingling mute cabin footage beautifully, the scene still oozing a squirming, chilly, menace half a century and more later. Much of the credit here must also go to composer James Bernard, making his film debut and the man whose scores would become Hammer signatures; here, as it does throughout the film, Bernard’s subtle yet ligature tight cue winds the tension.
Wonderful stuff, and the first in a trilogy of Hammer Quatermass (the ‘Xperiment’ of the title was to capitalise on the BBFC certification) films all of which, I simply could not resist watching again.
Incidentally, IMDB lists the OAR for The Quatermass Xperiment as 1.66:1, but also says:
“…This film was originally slated to be released in the United States by 20th Century Fox. However, to convince more exhibitors to install Cinemascope equipment, studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, pledged that all future 20th Century Fox releases would be in Cinemascope or a compatible anamorphic process. Since this Hammer production was shot in standard Academy, it had to be passed over. It was picked up and released through United Artists…”
The BFI can’t even confirm the AR; filmed during 1954 when the world was becoming wide, it’s more than possible that Guest had it shot in 1.66:1 but protected for 1.33:1. I gave it go for the first time at a ratio as close to 1.66:1 as I could. The credits are very tight, but thereafter it looks reasonable with no cut-off heads; However, I reverted to 1.33:1 the moment Dr. Brisco spots the slime trail at the zoo; wide, Brisco looks alarmed, but the trail, at the bottom of the screen, is out of shot.
On the whole, I think I prefer my ‘Xperiment’ in 1.33:1; I don’t think there’s any doubting it was framed thus (EDIT; since writing this, I’ve learned that I’m wrong, wrong, wrong - not only is the DVD badly cropped, but Exclusive Films switched to 1.66:1 in 1953. Never too old to learn…). DDHE’s video transfer is quite good, nice and sharp with decent contrast. There’s a constant background hiss to the soundtrack, and sound levels vary, but it’s not unduly distracting. I hear MGM have prepped a HD version in the US and a Blu-ray presentation would be more than welcome, though the way catalogue releases are shaping up Stateside, I’m not about to hold my breath.
The Quatermass Experiment (R2 DVD); The 1953 television broadcast, or at least what remains of it. The first two parts are all that remain of the BBC’s gripping six-parter. Broadcast live, the initial brace of episodes were thankfully also captured on film; as you might expect, with three hours to play with, Kneale’s horrifying tale of the possible consequences of exploring the unknown has time to breathe. Thus, there are more characters (including a surprisingly sympathetic journalist) and greater characterisation (Quatermass comes across as far more conflicted, indeed desperate, about the havoc his British Rocket Group may have unwittingly wrought), it’s tremendously frustrating we have to leave the BBC dramatisation only a third of the way in.
It’s understandable Kneale was unhappy with Donlevy; his Quatermass is hardly as he envisaged and Reginald Tate plays him most effectively, but then again, he has time to characterise - watching the later Hammer production unfold, how the Manxman must have agonised over all that lost exposition.
The TV production seems to have the budget of half an episode of The Flowerpot Men, as we switch - live don’t forget - from a tiny sparse set to an even tinier and sparser part of the same studio. ‘So the comic strips were right’ says an awestruck onlooker at one point ‘they do wear those kinds of suits.’ Within eight years, the truth would out - spacemen did not in fact wear an odd mix of items fashioned after vintage diving gear, the lot bought wholesale by the Beeb costumers from the Portobello Road Army & Navy Stores…very disappointing!
Despite that, these tantalising snippets of The Quatermass Experiment transcend any problems; you can see why it left a nation spellbound, and Hammer films eager to get their chequebook out. Quatermass would not only provide a template for successive generations of film-makers, but would also enter the language to become a convenient shorthand for hyperbole prone hacks in search of a sensation seeking headline. Kneale’s creation entered the public consciousness to the extent that even those that have never seen the good professor in action have some idea what the dropping of his name entails. Bad things. Very bad things.
Picture quality is exactly as you would expect for 55-years-old TV, and some of the bugbears are part and parcel of the original production; no time to set things up ‘just so’, so the lighting sometimes causes unwanted lens flares, cues are missed and so on. Given all that, it’s not bad but it’s hardly the best example of vintage television preserved digitally, though probably it doesn’t differ much in this respect from the day it was first transmitted. Live TV folks, ’50s style. And it emptied pubs and churches the length and breadth of the land.
The mono sound is actually pretty good, Holst’s Mars hammered out effectively over those stylish main titles. The 2|entertain box set from which it hails, containing all three BBC productions - with the quite fabulous Quatermass And The Pit easily the stand-out - comes very highly recommended
Quatermass II (R1 DVD); Three years after the release of the first film, and Hammer again follows the Beeb’s lead. This time Kneale combines sci-fi and horror with a deep-seated paranoia. In The Quatermass Xperiment, Kneale warned of alien invasion from outer space. Here, it’s an enemy that’s already established and it’s happened even before the opening credits roll; the invaders have infiltrated society at the very highest echelons, both Government and the Police. The population isn’t aware that they are becoming zombie slave workers or, in one instance, being prepped as the main ingredient in a rather nasty inter-galactic bouillabaisse.
The original BBC script is adapted for the screen this time by Kneale himself with director Val Guest, and once again, the pace is relentless (even if the geography is suspect; Carlisle being a short ride, apparently, from Parliament Square). It feeds Cold War angst of an enemy within, the fears that enemy invasion could be insidious and covert, rather than the wholly overt threat of the first story. Of course, it also reads that you can’t trust anyone, even - or especially - our political masters. The alien landscape of the Shell Haven refinery in Essex proves the ideal location for the supposed manufacturing base for a ’synthetic food’; perhaps the most startling image in the whole film is of the bluff northern MP ‘Broadhead’ (Tom Chatto) covered in a skin-stripping slime, staggering, his smoking flesh boiling, down the ladder of one of the refinery’s huge, unearthly, domes.
This time, there is no doubt about the original aspect ratio; Anchor Bay’s R1 DVD is transferred open-matte, and zooms to 1.66:1 beautifully. The transfer is excellent and the sound mostly nigh on perfect, the chatter of the machine guns given a satisfying thud, and the screams of the ‘thing’ suitably vast and otherworldly. As he does on the DVD of the first film, Val Guest again features on an interesting commentary track, his age at the time of recording no impediment to recalling incidents on and off the set.
Quatermass & The Pit (R1 DVD); the last of the triumvirate of Hammer Quatermass films, and it takes a Scot to get closer to the heart of the English Prof. Bernard Quatermass. 12 years after their last stab at Nigel Keale’s creation, and nine after the Beeb broadcast the TV version of the same story, once again director Roy Ward Baker has to tell the story condensed from a three-hour original at a fair lick.
Kneale eschews the paranoia of the his ‘Q X’ and ‘Q II’ for a mix of ghosties, ghoulies, the paranormal and science - aliens not a million miles from those unseen propagators of planets in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001; A Space Odessey. Good to see James Donald and Barbara Shelley (who is weirdly erotic even here; it’s not just me surely?), but Julian Glover is a little young for the blustering warrior Colonel Breen I feel.
The story builds but, unlike the TV presentation, the genuine chills are few; it sorely misses a James Bernard score, Tristram Cary’s cues a little workaday. However the sound department - taking their cue from the broadcast series - works overtime to cover in this respect with aural effects that help to build tension. If I appear to be a little harsh on the film, I temper that by saying it’s a favourite. Honest. But simply, having now seen the original BBC presentation with André Morell, that towers above it. Yes; it really is that good.
The climax is exciting, and nicely achieved, though what the hell was James Donald thinking of? Madness… Anchor Bay’s R1 transfer is non-anamorphic, but hails from a clean print.
The Black Cat (R1 DVD); Not the Edward G. Ulmar horror, but the cornball 1941 version with Bela Lugosi lurking about in the shadows, while folks are bumped off in ‘the old dark house’ - Broderick Crawford and Anne Gwynne play the roles Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard did with far more aplomb over at Paramount, while Gale Sondergaard is, well, Gale Sondergaard. Crawford asks of Basil Rathbone at one point: ‘Who do you think you are - Sherlock Holmes?’
Lots of running around, secret passages and amusing business by Hugh Herbert; the kind of thing Universal chucked off in five minutes during the war years to keep folks minds off the fact that the world was going to hell in a handcart. Alan Ladd is bottom of the cast list, but was bumped higher on the posters as audiences were wowed by the simultaneous release of This Gun For Hire.
Perfect late night viewing from Universal (and another nice transfer) that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Man Made Monster (R1 DVD); Take one mad scientist (Lionel Atwill), add an unlikely premise (’electro-biology’), stir in a big, daft affable dupe (Lon Chaney Jr.), season with stock characters (the blonde, the investigative reporter), leave to simmer for about an hour - et voila! A typical Universal horror cheapie, and one that it notable for setting Chaney’s career down a path that both carved his name in movie history, and cursed him to a life on the undercard. It was off the back of Man Made Monster that Chaney got the part of Larry Talbot, another unwitting, doomed monster, one that simply refused to die.
Man Made Monster has Chaney’s ‘Dan McCormick’ able to absorb huge amounts of electricity, and doing so for some unexplained reason, it gives him superhuman strength and makes him the willing slave to Atwill’s ‘Dr Paul Rigas’, a man who is clearly several shillings short of a full leccy meter.
McCormick kills ‘Dr. John Lawrence’ (Samuel S. Hinds - oh no, not that nice Peter Bailey!), he’s then hoicked off to die in the electric chair. Not a good idea. Duly energised by being zapped, and zapped again and again (and again), a glowing McCormick goes on a rampage, carries away ‘June Lawrence’ (Anne Nagel) in true monster stylee, then meets his nemesis - barbed wire. Oh, watch it yourself…
Universal’s transfer is just pristine, with excellent contrast, there’s nary a mark and the mono soundtrack is spot on. There are English (HoH) and French subtitles.
Plague of The Zombies (R1 DVD); Following on from watching the Beeb’s excellent Quatermass & The Pit, I was in the mood for more André Morell. It was Mike Parkinson and Granada’s Cinema that first had me hiding behind the sofa at clips of this as a 10-year-old, and it’s always had a special place in my heart. I still think the nightmare sequence is one of the most chilling to be found in any Hammer film, indeed - even in a genre now dominated by tawdry horror pornography - any horror. And it is the reason, if I take a short cut through the cemetery, I scurry, occasionally glancing nervously over my shoulder, watching the newly dug earth for signs of movement. My flesh creeps just to think about it.
It’s neatly directed by John Gilling, who also helmed a number of other Hammers, notably The Pirates of Blood River, as well as the effective The Flesh & The Fiends and The Night Caller (not to mention a slew of Department S episodes). Morell’s ‘Good’ is nicely matched by John Carson’s ‘Evil’ squire, and full marks to Roy Ashton’s makeup, Les Bowie’s effects which combine with James Bernard’s score (there really is no substitute when it comes to Hammer) to culminate in a notable chiller. Even if the pay-off proves to be ever so slightly bananas.
Anchor Bay’s transfer is quite good; there’s some evident print damage in the first reel, but’s pretty strong thereafter and the mono soundtrack is more than adequate.
Cue maniacal Vincent Price laugh, a creaky coffin lid closing, end titles; happy All Hallows’ Eve…
You shouldn’t have interfered, Number 6. You’ll pay for this… September 29, 2009Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film & DVD Reviews , 5 comments
The Prisoner comes to Blu-ray; well, most of it…
A couple of Christmases ago, in the 40th anniversary year of its first broadcast, Network produced a truly scrumptious gift for admirers of Patrick McGoohan’s enigmatic, emblematic, trail-blazing puzzle wrapped in a conundrum that is The Prisoner.
That boxed set, a digipak of DVDs, plus Andrew Pixley’s wonderful book of production notes, proved near nirvana not only for that army of obsessive fans of the TV series, but for those who simply, like myself, recall it as fascinating, unmissable, wonderfully crafted. And, let’s face if, downright screwy. In both picture and sound, it was The Prisoner as never - well, not by myself and I would guess by millions of fans worldwide - seen before. The series was accompanied by a host of wonderful bonus materials; interviews, features, photographs, commentaries, on and on. It couldn’t possibly get any better than this. Could it?
Well, now it has.
Network’s newly released The Prisoner on Blu-ray initiates a sheer sensory overload, every single one of those 2,073,600 high-definition, on-screen pixels smashes through your retina and into your occipital lobe as blindingly vibrant, new - no - better than new. Minute details can be picked out, Portmeirion never looked so lush, the costumes and production designs never looked so…so damned ’60s, while at the same time appearing to have been shot yesterday.
Happily, Network appear to have taken on board fans’ niggles over the first set - a handful of audio problems, incorrect credits and the like - and put right those wrongs. The audio (it’s transferred at 24fps so there is a scintilla of difference from PAL video’s 25fps) is not lossless, but the mono track packs a delightful punch, those lightening crashes and McGoohan’s incandescent desk thumping, wakening the sub-woofer from its slumber. The 5.1 track, for those that want it, is a distinct improvement over the abomination that was included with the previous set. It’s a thing of genuine, eye-popping, ear-caressing, beauty. Now, surely it can’t get any better than this. Can it?
The packaging eschews the digipak of the previous set and goes for a big black coffin of a box with, nestled in storage pockets inside, all six discs economically stashed within one translucent blue case, Pixley’s paperback novel sized ‘notes’ - exactly the same book as with the previous box - alongside it. Maybe they thought both in a small slipcase would appear to undervalue such a big release with an rrp of £59.99, or maybe they are simply anticipating a day when the book will no longer be included, and the 6-disc box will be sold alone. It’s quite pretty, but another storage nightmare. I think the box may have to go into storage (i.e. the loft).
I can’t say any better about the contents of The Prisoner on Blu-ray than point you at James Gray’s excellent DVD Times review, complete with screenshots and a full rundown of the plethora of extras, and you can see snatches of the HD content on YouTube here, here and here.
I must however point out a small problem. Several folks have reported problems playing (ironically) disc six of the set on their BD machines. When my box arrived, I thought I’d better check it out as a matter of priority on my Samsung BD-P1500, and sure enough, after whirring uselessly for a few seconds up popped a terse on-screen message - ‘This disc can not [sic] be played’ - and it was disdainfully spat out.
Disc six, being one of two DVDs of extra features in the set (the only extras in hi-definition I can find thus far are the on-set photographs), was quickly popped into my DVD player…and accepted without problem. Very odd; so only a couple of hours ago I contacted Network via email, and in just a few minutes received a reply that they were ‘looking into it’. Within the hour came this thorough reply from Production Assistant Tim Berry, to whom I’m very grateful:
Following my previous email, we have looked into the issue you raised with the final disc of the Prisoner blu-ray set and have a likely explanation for your problem. We suspect it may be because the final disc includes the PDF content for PC/Macs, and it appears that this may not be compatible with all BD players, depending on the manufacturer.
To put PDF content on a DVD we make the DVD into what is called a ‘hybrid’ so that it can contain both ‘DVD video’ and ‘DVD ROM’ content. As a blu-ray player is more computer based than it is DVD (using more codes, etc.), all blu-ray discs are effectively BD-ROMs, so players need to read both the ROM and video elements on a blu-ray disc in order for it to play. It would appear that some companies are manufacturing BD players that first try to read the ‘ROM’ content on any disc – whether blu-ray or DVD - as opposed to the video element of the disc first. With disc 6 of The Prisoner, your BD player appears to be trying to read the PDF files, which are only playable on PC/Macs and declaring the disc unreadable before attempting to read the DVD content.
We are unsure how many players would behave in this manner. Blu-ray technology is still in its infancy and some manufacturers are still working out how to make their players compatible with previous technology; we do know, however, that the PS3 and Sony350 are able to play these discs. We can only apologise for any convenience caused but I hope that this email goes some way towards answering your question.
…Blu-ray production is completely new territory for a lot of companies and inevitably, just as when DVD replaced VHS, there will always be an element of trial and error - both on the part of the distributors and the BD player manufacturers - in order for the technology to develop and improve.
While we at Network are aware of how a blu-ray disc is read, we had never been in any situation to made aware that some manufacturers may not have taken into account, when making a BD player compatible with previous technology, that it will need to read video elements first. The variety of players we used to make and check these discs worked were programmed to read them correctly, with no problems and it is the aim of manufacturers to ensure that DVDs can continue to be played on BD players. We put a lot of research into our release and it’s a problem that has never been brought to our attention up until now.
This is obviously an experience we will learn from for our future releases and I’d be surprised if the manufacture [sic] who made your BD player was not already aware of this flaw in their production also. It may be worth contacting them directly though, to make clear the specific problems this has caused you - they may even be able to offer you a suitable solution to this problem.
Fair enough, but, gentle reader, the plot thickens. Stap me for a fool, but it didn’t occur to me until tonight to try other ‘hybrid’ discs in the BD player to see if Network’s finger pointing holds water. 2|entertain’s ‘Doctor Who’ releases of Inferno and Genesis of The Daleks are hybrid discs and Network’s own Man In A Suitcase set also features discs containing PDF content. All booted up in the Samsung in a trice. I’m sighing - can’t you hear me sighing?
I’m reliably informed that disc six of The Prisoner set works fine in a Panasonic BD35, an unspecified Sanyo, but is also ejected from the budget Curtis machine - so it does appear to be some kind of player specific issue, an authoring problem, or possibly a bad batch of discs (or a combination of any of those) - oh dear, time for another email to Network.
Number 6, as always, is proving a tough nut to crack. Be seeing you.
Square Eyes; Bullets, Broads…and BBC 4 August 17, 2009Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film General, Crime / Noir / Thriller, Square Eyes , 8 comments
The redoubtable BBC 4 is running a short film noir season this coming weekend with six movies shown Saturday and Sunday and no less than five screenings of a new hour long documentary presented by Matthew Sweet, The Rules of Film Noir.
All the offerings on display are from the genre’s golden period, all from Hollywood studios and featuring some of film noir’s finest…
Saturday August 22
19:30; Farewell My Lovely (aka Murder, My Sweet - 1944). Two years before Bogie’s indelible impersonation of Raymond Chandler’s crumpled detective in The Big Sleep, former crooner Dick Powell made a courageous career leap into the murky world of noir with his rather more battered and bruised version of Philip Marlowe. Private eye Marlowe is hired by ex-con Moose Malloy to find his girlfriend, embroiling the hard-boiled gumshoe in a plot which involves blackmail, murder, drugs, double cross… and delicious dollops of voice-over dialogue. Perhaps the most filmed of all Chandler’s stories (though sometimes heavily disguised; parts of the plot were even borrowed for a Bob Hope comedy vehicle), Powell and director Edward Dmytryk’s Farewell My Lovely boasts a grittiness only bettered by Dick Richards and Robert Mitchum 30 years later. Available on a rather nice R1 Warner DVD and a less impressive Universal disc in the UK.
21:00; The Rules of Film Noir. First showing of the new Elaine Pieper directed documentary. Also shown Sunday at 00.50, 0.3:35, 22:35, and Monday at 03:05. Through the lavish use of film archive and stylised graphics as punctuation, BBC Four’s one-hour documentary presents:“…an essential guide to one of the most influential movements in cinema history: dark, cynical Film Noir.” Let’s all hope it amounts to more than a little fluff.
22:00; The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Compelling and highly stylised (what else from director/writer Orson Welles?) tale of an Irish sailor who accompanies a beautiful woman and her husband on a sea cruise, and becomes a pawn in a game of murder. Includes labyrinthine plot twists and some breathtaking cinematography - particularly in the famous Hall of Mirrors scene. The cast includes Welles, as the sap Michael O’Hara, his then wife (but not for long) Rita Hayworth as the femme fatale, the wholly dependable Everett Sloane and William Alland is again uncredited as a reporter. Some read Welles own marital difficulties into a tale of deceptions and lies; it’s not impossible. Available in both R1 and R2 from Sony.
23:25; The Big Combo (1955). Stylish film noir about a police lieutenant (Cornel Wilde) who comes under pressure from a gang headed by a vicious thug (Richard Conte). He is helped by the gangster’s wife, jealous at her husband’s affair with another woman, who supplies him with information to help him close the net on his foe. Director Joseph H. Lewis hoped the Production Code would take less interest in a minor studio making Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef, as a pair of trigger men, not so obliquely gay. He guessed right. I think I’m right in saying the only DVD incarnations available have been chucked on to DVD by slapdash PD merchants now that the R1 Image version is OOP.
Sunday August 23
01:50; Force of Evil (1948). Dark, brooding and cerebral drama from writer/director Abraham Polonsky about two brothers caught up in crime and corruption. An ambitious lawyer (the superb, doomed John Garfield) in search of materialistic gain begins work for a New York criminal mastermind, who plans to take over New York’s illegal lottery. The attorney serves his boss faithfully until he realises his own brother will fall victim to the plan. But it seems he may now be too involved to escape the gangster’s violent ends. Martin Scorsese hails this as one of noir’s forgotten masterpieces, but certainly it’s not under-appreciated by film fans. Beautifully written, acted and directed with a fine David Raskin score, R1 and R2 have to make do with slightly underpar transfers from Lionsgate and Metrodome respectively.
21:00; Build My Gallows High (aka Out Of The Past - 1947). Quintessential American noir which tells a grim, complex tale of love and betrayal. A failed detective (Robert Mitchum) falls for the mistress (Jane Greer) of a mobster to whom he is heavily in debt. When she double-crosses him and returns to the mobster, the detective changes his identity and drops out of sight. But the gangster still wants his money back, and he and the woman plot to lure the detective into a vengeful scenario. Daniel Mainwaring wrote and literate and intelligent script from his own novel, Jacques Tourneur directs with aplomb, both Mitchum and Greer are on top form; also features Kirk Douglas and Rhonda Fleming. Warner delivered the DVD goods in R1, Universal, once again, had to make do with sloppy seconds in R2.
23:30; Stranger on The Third Floor (1940). Rarely screened Boris Ingster helmed psychological drama (for RKO) and touted by some as the first noir. The testimony of an ambitious reporter (John McGuire) helps to convict a young man (Elisha Cook Jr.) of murder, but the newspaper man has second thoughts about his contribution when he finds himself in the dock while a homicidal maniac is on the loose. Peter Lorre is top billed but while he has little to do, he does so effectively in this short (64 minutes) proto-noir. The only DVD out there appears to be a Spanish offering from Manga, but not having seen it, I can’t vouch for it.
The Bed Sitting Room June 4, 2009Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, British Film , 7 comments
“How long is this shit going to go on for?” snapped a United Artists executive at director Richard Lester during a pre-release screening of his 1969 comedy The Bed Sitting Room. That’s not, I would venture, a good start for any movie…
UA fast-tracked The Bed Sitting Room into production with a million dollar budget held over from Lester’s previous project Up Against It, still-born after its unlucky screenwriter Joe Orton had his skull smashed in by his lover. They wanted Help! or at the very least A Hard Day’s Night, sans the songs and the moptops. They got ‘this shit’.
Actually what they got (eventually - UA didn’t know what the hell to do with it for months after completion) was a quirky, surreal, very British, absurdist satire with barbed gags that zing off the screen like honey coated pieces of shrapnel; you don’t necessarily have to be a mature denizen of this sceptred isle to fully appreciate The Bed Sitting Room - after all, the Philadelphian born Anglophile Lester made the most British of British films - but it helps.
The Bed Sitting Room is spine no. 001 in the BFI’s exciting Flipside line, a new label dedicated to “films that were overlooked, marginalised, or undervalued at the original time of release, or sit outside the established canon of recognised classics”. It certainly fits that bill.
Developed from the play by long-time collaberators John Antrobus and the unique talent that was Spike Milligna (the well known typing error), fans of The Goons but more particularly Milligan’s anarchic ‘Q’ TV shows will instantly hear his master’s off-kilter voice shot through Antrobus’s screenplay. The Bed Sitting Room was contemporaneously compared to the work of Samuel Beckett (”with better jokes”), but you’ll see the lineage that leads from Goonery to Python, with a dollop of home Cookery (that’s Peter Cook-ery, gentle reader…) chucked in for seasoning.
Focusing on a tiny group of survivors following the “nuclear misunderstanding” that was World War 3, all of two minutes and 28 seconds long “including signing the peace treaty”, we find a disparate cross-section of British society muddling through in a radiation ravaged landscape…and slowly mutating into a parrot (Arthur Lowe in full pompous mode), a wardrobe (the ever delightful Mona Washbourne), a dog (get down Dudley Moore!) plus, best of all, the eponymous bed sitting room (the eye-wateringly wonderful Ralph Richardson, as the unfortunate Lord Fortnum of Alamein).
Lord Fortnum of Alamein: “It’s the latest early warning hat, it gives you an extra four minutes in bed.”
The BBC: “I’ve never worn a hat in bed. I’ve been a Catholic person for a long time now and I wouldn’t know where to begin. Is this your car sir?”
Lord Fortnum of Alamein: “It is. I acquired it from Lord Snowden…”
The BBC: “…not THE Lord Snowden?”
Lord Fortnum of Alamein: “No, A Lord Snowden.”
The BBC: “Ah, yes, the woods are full of them.”
Milligan plays a post-apocalyptic postman, popping up to deliver, well, all manner of useless stuff, not least a custard pie in the kisser for the starving Michael Horden, a doctor who spends his day atop a mountain of shoes, sorting the footwear of the 40 million or so dead, and dreaming of Hovis. It’s Horden and especially Milligan’s characters that betray the film’s origins, first as a one-act play, then a longer stage piece. Both Antrobus and Milligan were said to be unhappy with The Bed Sitting Room’s translation to the big-screen, a fact with which both contemporary critics, and much to the suits at UA’s chagrin, audiences seemed to agree. As pacy as it can be, you can see that it would probably have had far more energy on stage, bringing the style much closer to black farce, ironically more Orton-esque.
As it stands, and accepting the flaws, it’s a heroic effort. How could it not be given the talent on show? Yes, it does seem a tad languorous at times, Lester having seemingly fallen in love with the quarry in Surrey that stands in for a blasted and scorched central London. Cinematographer David Watkin lingers on unfeasibly vast piles of crockery, false teeth, used lightbulbs. On Everests of stone, rivers of lord knows what, valleys of rusted automobiles that will never run again, and we play a guessing game of longshot or closeup (are those huge boulders or small stones..?) We see the dome of St Paul’s rising out of the muck, an Underground escalator hangs in mid-air, and doorways, indeed whole porches, stand in acres of solitude, waiting for the visitorial proprieties. Take a bow Assheton Gorton, the art director also responsible for painting an entire South-east London street red for Blow Up.
This is not, despite the premise, as full on bonkers as, say, Milligan’s delightfully nuts The Great McGonagall; director Lester had, after all, a terrific track record of transmogrifying a script that had a quirky nature into a commercial success, something that Milligan sometimes appeared to care less about…as long as it made him giggle. However, it does say something that Lester rode in on the project his star ascendant - it was to be nigh on five years before he made another movie.
On the plus side, Milligan and Antrobus let no-one, not one scintilla of contemporary British society - politics, religion, the health service, the military, the police, the class-system, the bigots, the concept of mutually assured destruction, the whole fact of ‘hanging on in quiet desperation’ being the English way - escape their often acid satire. Absolutely bristling with ideas, even if, it must be said, some of the ambition is unfulfilled, The Bed Sitting Room is as much a product of time and place as Help!, but with the extermination of millions, starvation, survival and atomic mutation on the menu, even this most surreal bill of fare, it’s certainly not quite as cuddly.
Watching it today, though we aren’t as absolutely positive that we will end our days as shadows on the pavement as we were 40 years ago (and hence the potency of the anti-nuclear message is ever so slightly diminished), The Bed Sitting Room seems only to increase in stature. Not only because this particular form of comedy - and no-one could whip up a melange of satire, surrealism, hoary old jokes and cream pie gags quite like Spike - seems to be a long dead art. But were that not the case, have we the 21st century equivalent to perform it? As much as I admire Sir Ian, could McKellen stand in for Richardson, Paul Merton for Milligan? How about Peter Cook; who could possibly fill his boots…no, I give up.
Police Inspector: I expect you may be wondering why I’ve invited you all here this afternoon. I’ve just come from an audience with Her Majesty, Mrs Ethel Shroake, and I’m empowered by her to tell you that, in the future, clouds of poisonous nuclear fog will no longer be necessary. Mutations will cease sine die and, furthermore, I’m the bringer of glad tidings. A team of surgeons at the Woolwich hospital have just accomplished the world’s first successful complete body transplant. The donor was the entire population of South Wales, and the new body is functioning normally. I, myself, saw it sit up in bed, wink, and ask for a glass of beer.
All in all, I think we’re in for a time of peace, prosperity and stability, when the earth will burgeon forth anew, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the goat will give suck to the tiny bee.
At times of great national emergency, you’ll often find that a new leader tends to emerge. Here I am - so watch it.
Keep moving, everybody, that’s the spirit! Keep moving!
The cast, listed in the credits in order of height (naturally), is wholly excellent. Added to those mentioned above we have Frank Thornton as the living embodiment of the BBC, Harry Secombe as the seat of regional government (boyo), an 18-months pregnant Rita Tushingham, delivering a surprisingly pretty (and surprising) prose poem in praise of boyfriend Richard Warwick at the film’s mid-point, Roy Kinnear (heavily into rubber…), and Jimmy Edwards, who only needs 17s 6d to get him out of left luggage. The comic genius that was Marty Feldman makes his film debut in full nurses uniform, performs his own stunt (typically) as he makes a ‘Tarzan’ swing into a tree and fells it, and is given the best sight gag in the movie on his introduction. The eyes have it…
You will enjoy Ronnie Brody, the holocaust’s bemirrored transport chief, Henry Woolf, pedaling furiously to keep the Circle Line operational, Ronald Fraser is the whole British army, Jack Shepherd, as the underwater vicar (sounding for all the world like Ronnie Barker, mostly because he was revoiced by the versatile Mr B), Dandy Nichols (as Mrs Ethel Shroake of Leytonstone; otherwise HM The Queen. Sing: “God Save Mrs Ethel Shroake of 393a High Street Leytonstone…”) looks distinctly uncomfortable astride a horse, and Peter Cook, initially a police inspector to Dud’s barking sergeant, then revealed by Horden (”…That IS God - I recognise the voice…”) to be deified. Two years earlier, Cookie was the devil and now he’s the Lord God Almighty.
Well, we all know that REALLY don’t we?
Some have found the BFI’s Blu-ray disc to have lip-sync problems; I can, happily, report none at all. Player related? Player/amp/connection related? Who knows - all this HD stuff is still uncharted territory for many. All I can say is that there are no problems here. The MGM sourced 1.85:1 (most probably the original ratio for at least U.S. screenings) transfer is excellent, sharp and more than reasonably detailed with no outstanding dirt or damage of note. Things do get a little less clear during the latter third when Lester uses heavy filters to give the impression of a nuclear sunset, but this is precisely how the film should look. Like previous BFI HD transfers, this is very film-like, very commendable. The uncompressed mono sound came over loud and clear on my system too; more than adequate.
The extras are not plentiful (apparently, apart from supporting the release - according to the BFI’s, and fellow FJ blogger, Michael Brooke - Lester declined to be involved per se in the production, hence no commentary, no new filmed interview), but they are utterly fascinating; previously unbroadcast interviews by Bernard Braden for his Now and Then TV show with Cook (30 minutes), Milligan (40 minutes) and Lester (17 minutes) in 1967 (hence the latter discussing How I Won The War and Cook puffing Bedazzled). These filmed interviews are beautifully preserved time capsules - I thought Milligan’s was particularly personally revealing. Had the disc contained the interviews alone, it would, in my humble opinion, still be well worth a purchase. There’s a trailer, in HD, in not quite as good condition as the main feature, but it’s nicely done and makes me want to watch the film all over again.
You’ll also find a handsome 28-page booklet inside the case with stills from the film, an essay by the aforementioned Mr Brooke, an April 1970 review of the movie by Russell Cambell, a write-up on Lester by Neil Sinyard, and some very much appreciated contextual notes on those Now and Then interviews. There are sub-titles for the hearing impaired in English and the whole is coded BD Region ‘B’.
So, a hit, a palpable hit for the new BFI Flipside line, The Bed Sitting Room belongs on the shelves of any fan of British cinema. Possibly the shelf in your bed sitting room - it’s also available on SD DVD for you luddites (I jest, before you send a hit man round…). For many different reasons, I loved it, I really did; I’m sure you will too.
Can I also commend to you clydefro’s take on the film and disc at DVD Times, which you will find here, and for actual screencaps of the film itself - capturing HD seems to be a black art I cannot master - see DVD Beaver here. Incidentally part of that ’support’ from Lester I mentioned earlier included taking part in a Q&A at a recent screening of The Bed Sitting Room at the NFT, and this BBC Podcast, in which, amongst other films, he discusses the movie. Download it while you can (*EDIT* - now removed by the Beeb; you missed it!) .
Keep moving! Keep moving everybody..!
Watching Brief; Hammered… October 18, 2008Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Watching Brief , 2 comments
TEN MORE FROM Watching Brief; in the order in which they were viewed…
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976; R2 DVD); What really happened during the period when Sherlock Holmes disappeared, temporarily as it turned out, from the pages of The Strand magazine? Nick Meyer scripts an original Holmes tale, taken from his own novel, which finds our hero in the grip of his cocaine habit and half out of his mind obsessing over an arch-enemy that only he truly believes in (’Moriarty’ - another ’70s cameo from Larry Olivier). The always riveting Nicol Williamson makes a quite superb, invigorating ’Holmes’, Alan Arkin is truly enjoyable as ‘Sigmund Freud’, and Charles Gray sketches a ‘Mycroft’ that he was to reprise opposite the late, great Jeremy Brett.
Alas, no-one could pluck up the courage to tell the usually otherwise brilliant Robert Duvall (Watson) that his English accent is to the Home Counties as Dick Van Dyke’s was to the East End. Think Noel Coward with a very nasty cold. And a speech impediment. It doesn’t fatally damage the film, but it helps that Duvall’s dialogue is significantly briefer than Arkin’s (whose character is, incidentally, more Watsonian than Watson himself).
An engaging and good humoured romp, directed with considerable verve by Herbert Ross, and a great twist. Fremantle’s transfer is in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and though not unmarked, it’s pretty clean and quite handsome. It’s also very cheap; the box claims that there is a stills gallery on the disc (the solitary extra), but I’m beggared if I can find it.
The Black Shield of Falworth (1954; R2 DVD); Universal’s first film in the then brand spanking new Cinemascope format comes to DVD, and at this point, as we enter the panto season, feel free to yell: “oh no it isn’t!”
Apparently the well-publicised fire at Universal Studios a few months ago destroyed a number of video masters, and the result is, sadly, a 1.78:1 cropped print is the best they could do for this Eureka! Classics release, and the best we’ll see until they extract digit, go back to the negative and make another.
‘Falworth’ was not only shot in 2.55:1 by director Rudolph Maté, but also shot again and framed in 1.85:1 while at the same time (are you still with me?) protected for Academy ratio, so that it could be screened in any of the three formats as theatres across the U.S. scurried to go wide in the mid-’50s. But this is not a transfer of a 1.85:1 master, the opening titles trumpet ‘A Cinemascope Production’…and soon it’s fairly clear that not only is it cropped at the sides, it looks to me to be chopped top and bottom too, so tight is the framing.
The good news (and there really isn’t much after that is there) is while it’s not free of the odd specks and marks, ’Falworth’ is reasonably clean (though it could do with a digital do-over), and the colour is really quite good, not the very best that can be achieved, but quite representative of a Technicolor film of the period. As for the film, ‘Falworth’ is right into Prince Valiant territory, indeed it was Universal’s riposte to Fox’s swords ‘n shields romp of the same year. Both films featured Janet Leigh and her pointy, pointy medieval breasts, but in the end it was Robert Wagner’s pageboy haircut in a straight showdown with Tony Curtis’s carefully coiffed, mean ’n moody Middle Ages D.A.
Trial by tonsor; no contest - no-one, after all, ever walked into a barber shop and said “…gimme a Robert Wagner…”
Both pictures are great fun; ‘Valiant’ featuring Arthurian nights in a 15th century setting battling Long Horn Vikings, while ‘Falworth’ has our hero in some bizarre boot camp, marines (verily) in chain-mail, under the blazing hot Californian sun of Merry Olde England, mouthing contemporary phrases, while adding a nod to the period setting by chucking in the odd ‘prithee’ or a ‘mayhap’. What’s not to like?
The story is engaging, the stunts and set piece fights are excellent, sound engineers working overtime to add more weight to balsa lances, and resin maces, and dammit, Tony Curtis, his Bronx accent not too great an impediment, is fab. It’s just a damned shame that The Black Shield of Falworth, a landmark in the history of both Universal and ’scope, could not be presented in OAR. Kudos to Eureka! for providing the screener for this blog, knowing full well it contained disappointing news.
The Seventh Victim & The Leopard Man (Both 1943; R1 DVD); a double-bill from Warners Val Lewton box set, the former a truly eerie and unsettling story from director Mark Robson, ostensibly about urbanised devil worshippers, but, like much of the producer’s films, is really about something else, and something far more interesting, entirely. I was reminded again and again of David Lynch; the closing scene chilled my flesh, but it’s hard to pin down precisely why. Sam Shepherd, describing a Terrence Malick film once likened it to a poem that touches something within. Sometimes you just don’t know why, it defies analysis, but it’s enough that it does. Isn’t that one of the many reasons why we love movies?
Much the same can be said about Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man (taken from a Cornell Woolrich novel), the opening reel of which contains a beautifully directed, and still quite spine-tingling, scene in which a young girl is savagely killed by a an escaped big black cat. As others die in similar circumstances, the film becomes a who - or what - dunnit. Both pictures are supreme examples of tight, intelligent, low budget chillers that go well beyond their remit and leave viewers begging for more.
The Ghost Ship (1943; R1 DVD); And more came the following evening in the shape of another Mark Robson film, again from 1943. Yet another cracker from Warners Lewton set - not many ghosts, well, none to be honest, but an absolutely stunning study of madness aboard the Altair (named, aptly, after the ill-omened star of astrology). Seemingly affable, intelligent, ‘Capt. Stone’ (former RKO western star Richard Dix; who knew he could act…), muses on the nature of authority with greenhorn third officer ‘Tom Merriam’ (Russell Wade), but when Merriam finds out that this extends to a homicidal God-complex, he attempts, at landfall, to have his Captain dismissed. Failing, and finding himself ostracised, Merriam gets knocked unconscious in a brawl…and by sheer bad luck, hauled back aboard the Altair where the murderous, maniacal Stone wants his revenge.
Once more, a delicious slice of top quality, low-budget, movie-making from Mark Robson, this tight 69 minute noir-like thriller is filled with quirky characters and dialogue. Robson bookends the film with another typically off-beat figure, a mute, played by the deliciously named Skelton Knaggs, and yet another whose appearance evokes Lynchian comparisons. Is there a better scripted portrayal of insanity at sea (it’s a quite small, but high quality genre…), I don’t think so (and I include The Caine Mutiny). Loved it.
Scream of Fear (aka Taste of Fear, 1961; R1 DVD); Four films in the new Icons of Horror; Hammer Films set, and first, a Seth Holt directed Hammer shocker, scripted by the prolific Jimmy Sangster, that springs no real surprises plot-wise (okay, one…), but still has the capacity to make the viewer (yep, this viewer) jump out of his or her skin. Lots of moody, black and white deep focus, Christopher Lee (and ees verree nawty accent français…) has little to do except attract the punters, but I grow fonder and fonder of Ann Todd with each film of hers I see. Susan Strasberg and Ronald Lewis co-star. A neat, twist filled thriller that does exactly what it says on the tin.
Sony’s 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer is quite beautiful and, though it may look a tad soft on occasion, I suspect it reflects the film as shown theatrically. There’s just the right amount of grain, the contrast is nigh on perfect and I could not detect one significant mark on the print. Bravo Sony. The slightly hysterical sub-Saul Bass trailer, presented in 1.85:1 and also in great shape, yells at us to make sure we see the film ‘from the start!’ But why wouldn’t we…?
All we are missing is a Sangster commentary, and perhaps a featurette on Hammer’s Hitchcockian output. It would have been the cherry on a very tasty cake.
The Gorgon (1964; R1 DVD); “There’s nothing wrong with The Gorgon” said Christopher Lee, referring to the less than special special effects that made the rubber snakes on wires atop Magaera’s head writhe, well, like rubber snakes on wires, “except the Gorgon”. He could also have made mention of his own ludicrous wig and ‘tache, clearly a failed audition for the part of ‘Doctor Who’ that co-star Peter Cushing made his own the following year. In a ludicrous wig and fake moustache of course. Barbara Shelley, as love interest ‘Carla’, suggested to producer Anthony Nelson Keys that they use real snakes woven into a skull cap, but time and budget precluded that. After the premiere, Keys told Shelley that they should have gone ahead with her idea. Alas, too late.
In truth there is nothing wrong with The Gorgon, period. It is top quality ‘Golden Age’ Hammer, with beautiful sets and production design, a decent story, excellent cast, James Bernard at the baton, and a stirring denouement that has Cushing (hero or villain; we are kept guessing to the end) roaring about Bray, grappling with Richard Pasco, like a man possessed, and in his best ‘Van Helsing’ manner. Though I crack wise, Lee is excellent too, oddly enough his ‘Prof. Meister’ only a short nod away, in terms of character, from Stoker’s vampire expert.
Sony’s new R1 transfer is absolutely breath-taking. Again, in anamorphic 1.66:1 it boasts eye-popping colours and a level of clarity that gives it the look of a film shot, not 44 years ago, but yesterday. There is not a mark on it; it’s bloody gorgeous and, like the rest of the transfers in the Icons of Horror; Hammer Films set, emanates from the original negative. The only extra is a trailer, also in 1.66:1, that appears just as newly minted.
The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960; R1 DVD); Terence Fisher helms this relatively lavish Hammer, ‘MegaScope’ production, the twist, courtesy of screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz, being that Jekyll is a hirsute, boring, deep voiced, buffer, while Hyde is a fresh faced handsome, sotto voce young devil, both played by Canadian Paul Massie (possibly best known for The Rebel). You can’t help feeling that Christopher Lee would have been better served in the title role rather than as Jekyll’s debauched friend, and Jekyll’s wife’s lover, ‘Paul Allen’. No transformation scenes as such, a slight voice change, beard and wig whipped off/on where necessary but Massie doesn’t, I feel, quite have the acting chops to pull it off (no pun intended).
Not only - Hyde being rarely seen to be truly eee-vil and Massie looking naturally boyish - do you suspect that he’s so fiendish that the worst he does is take two lumps of sugar in his tea (the cad), but in close-up, as Jekyll, our star looks alarmingly like a Gerry Anderson puppet. Think ‘Parker’ with a beard.
Still, it’s 1960 (before sex was invented) and, for the day, some of the scenes are quite risqué (the film was banned in Finland for instance; those Finns purely loved to censor Hammer films - this is the full uncensored version). In London’s most brightly lit brothel, Fisher unwisely concentrates his camera on Norma Marla’s nethers (well, she wears a mask, so conceivably it could be a double) as she does the rumba with a large python. She then - yikes! - fellates it; the snake seems suitably unimpressed, but it is without doubt the most horrifying scene in the whole picture. Please, no more. Put it away Norma.
It is in the same setting (the brothel, not in flagrante betwixt a snake charmer’s ample thighs) that we catch our first sight of Ollie Reed in a Hammer film, as ’Nightclub Bouncer’, a proto-Bill Sykes.
There are better tellings of Stevenson’s tale out there (Lee in I, Monster being one), but there are also worse. Perhaps the oddest thing about the film is the main title music, which suggests that we are about to get a musical. Now there was an idea, since taken up by ‘The Hoff’ no less…
Another spiffy transfer from Sony, in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, not quite as boggling as The Gorgon, but really, it’s hard to fault it. Again, the only extra is a trailer, also in ’scope, also in excellent fettle.
The Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb (1964; R1 DVD); Hammer’s second entry in their short ‘Mummy’ cycle, made five years after their original, and written and directed by Michael Carreras. ‘Curse’ is a combination of Stoker’s original ‘Mummy’ story, Howard Carter’s curse of King Tut, with a smidge of King Kong chucked in. That last bit is Fred Clark’s amusing ‘Alexander King’, first cousin to ‘Carl Denham’, the showman (friend of P.T. Barnum, and the man, apparently, who named Turkish Delight) whose plan to tour the relics and remains of ‘Ra-Antef’ ends, predictably, in disaster.
Rich smoothy Terence Morgan is not quite who he first seems, but like archaeologist and love rival Ronald Howard, he also wants to gets his hands on Jeanne Roland’s undiscovered treasures, while Michael Ripper boasts, I think, his briefest ever Hammer appearance. We all know what’s coming, as lumbering, asthmatic ’Ra-Antef’ (Dickie Owen wrapped in the bandages) is revived and rampages round foggy old London town. It’s a bit Elstree bound (there’s not a single exterior) and the low budget, despite the ‘Techniscope’ pretensions, is obvious.
But ‘Curse’, despite lacking any of Hammer’s heavyweights in the cast, is not without its charms during its quite brief 80 minutes. As a horror icon, the Mummy character is always undeniably creepy, and Carreras has some fun (Ripper’s windy moment, the woman’s goosed squeal as the lights go out during King’s premiere, King’s line: “Of course I’ve got enemies, I’m in show business!”). The end suggests Hammer were hot to trot for more, which of course, they were, but it wasn’t a franchise that had real legs. It lumbered too much.
Sony’s R1 2.35: 1 transfer is another beauty; it beats the hell out of the current UK release on several counts. For a start, it has a portentious trailer (again in ’scope, and again in super condition) and a proper menu system (no scene selection menu on the R2). The picture is markedly crisper, slightly more detailed and certainly boasts better colour. The mono soundtrack is quite adequate. Like the other films in the Icons of Horror; Hammer Films set, it’s remarkably unmarked and though it hails from a HD master made from the original negative, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a Blu-ray release; buy NOW.
Charley Varrick (1973; R2 DVD); Don Siegel opens his crime thriller with a montage, a homage to small town America under the titles. It’s an odd way to introduce us to Charley Varrick and his band of bank robbers, Lalo Schifrin’s bouncy score telling us everything’s just dandy. But if we have a hero (albeit an ambivalent one) in Varrick, then perhaps it’s Siegel’s way of acquainting the audience to his idea of heaven. Charley doesn’t want much really; he just wants to get by.
Walter Matthau started his film career as a bad guy, moved smoothly into comedy, and by the ’70s had the kind of easy versatility whereby he could star in something as fairly hard-nosed as Charley Varrick in the eponymous lead. Varrick has no compunction about shooting up a small town New Mexico bank, but despite his undoubted violent criminal nature, Matthau effortlessly manages to make Charley a sympathetic anti-hero.
Maybe we’re rooting for the man whose motto is ‘The Last of The Independents’ because he stands squarely outside ‘The Combine’. It was big business that did for Varrick’s ‘mom and pop’ crop-dusting venture, and it’s the criminal version of the same who are after the bag stuffed tight with hard cash - their money - Charley inadvertently steals. Rugged individualism, so we are told, built America, and Varrick is one resourceful, rugged individual; eluding the law, the mob, and a bullet in the back from his erstwhile partner, forms the plot of the entertaining Charley Varrick. Siegel packs alot of film into his typically taut 111 minute picture; lots of neatly painted characters with excellent dialogue, and lots of business that seemingly has little to do with the narrative but gives them substantive colour; hats off, then, to Howard Rodman and Dean Reisner’s script from John Reese’s novel, The Looters.
There’s an excellent cast; Andy Robinson’s expendable, mouthy ‘Harman’ makes you wonder how Charley ever got tied up with him in the first place, Joe Don Baker’s apparently unstoppable mob hit man ‘Molly’ is a nasty sadistic racist, and hot on Charley’s tale. John Vernon is the smooth be-suited financial front for the Mafia, ‘Maynard Boyle’, who warns, sweaty, terrified bank manager ‘Harold’ (Woodrow Palfrey): “They’ll strip you naked and go to work on you with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch”. Sounds familiar. The only mis-step is having Varrick bed Boyle’s secretary ‘Sybil’, but as she’s played by Jack Lemmon’s then wife, Felicia Farr, I suspect an in joke.
I read somewhere that Matthau didn’t care much for the film; perhaps he was uneasy with this criminal character apparently getting away with it, and at the same time winning us over. And he’s right. The ending is a bit of a stretch, but what the hell - we are all rooting for Charley Varrick, last of the independents, to get one over the big boys aren’t we?
The good news is that Fremantle’s new, very reasonably priced, R2 DVD is transferred in anamorphic 1.85:1, unlike Universal’s R1 from the despised and thankfully short lived ‘Studio Selections’ line, which was open-matte. Like The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, it’s not perfect; particularly in the first reel there are numerous nicks and white flecks, and reel change markers are still evident. It’s also slightly window boxed, but you shouldn’t notice this if you are watching on a monitor with any kind of overscan. Colour and detail are all, mostly, they should be and, with a nice menu design (missing totally from the R1) and good strong English mono sound; I do love a solid Schifrin score. There are no subtitles, but this time, the stills gallery is most certainly present. Overall, a pretty good effort.
I should point out that Fremantle were kind enough to also send me check discs for their latest iterations of Junior Bonner, Hell in the Pacific and They Shoot Horses Don’t They. It’s a massive disappointment to see them all cropped to 4:3 (the latter is also a horrible transfer in any format), and as such, despite their being priced lower than either the recommended The Seven-Per-Cent Solution or Charley Varrick, they get the thumbs down from me.
Watching Brief; Newman’s Own… October 12, 2008Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Watching Brief , add a comment
LAZY, LAZY, LAZY JOHN. I sit in front of my computer screen, with all the best intentions and staring VERY hard indeed, meaning to post, promising myself. Honest injun I do. But, well, stuff - ya know; ’stuff’ - just gets in the way. How about a series (providing I can extract digit - okay; how about ’occasional’ series?) of mini-reviews describing what I’ve been viewing on DVD recently? Stuff (that other stuff won’t get in the way of) that doesn’t require too much effort, yet keeps my internet self out of intensive care and merely in rehab? Stuff like this in fact. Sounds like a plan…
In no particular order, ten from Watching Brief…
The Verdict (1982; R1 DVD); big beasts James Mason and Paul Newman slug it out for acting honours in Sidney Lumet’s cracking courtroom drama. It’s a film, scripted by David Mamet, that naturally loves language; Lumet lets the camera linger lovingly on Newman’s voluble, electric, silences, but it’s Mamet’s magnificent dialogue that ups the voltage. Newman’s panic stricken scene where he realises that he is absolutely, totally and irrevocably screwed is a master class of screen acting. Fantastic. This was Fox’s first attempt at a DVD transfer of The Verdict with decent extra features, and while it’s acceptable, it has apparently since been bettered.
All or Nothing (2002; R2 DVD); Mike Leigh’s tale of a London taxi driver, his dysfunctional family and life on a sink estate showing that it’s grim dahn sarf. Typically hypnotic, with the ever brilliant Tim Spall in the lead, and a host of Leigh’s stock company in ‘blink and you’ll miss ‘em’ roles. The two hours plus running time flies by, but the unsatisfying conclusion appears oddly rushed and against all expectations. Not first rank Leigh, but even then better than most. Nice transfer from Pathé; I have yet to listen to Leigh’s commentary, but, if past efforts are any measure, it’s bound to be fascinating.
No Country For Old Men (2007; Region Free BD); The Coens at the top of their game, with all the visual and verbal pyrotechnics that marks the brothers very best work. Essentially a chase film, it begs questions that most men of a certain age must ask themselves about fate and chance and our place in a dead eyed world that regards us without pity or sentiment. Ostensibly the narrative follows good (Tommy Lee Jones) who chases evil (the wonderful Javier Bardem), as evil chases Josh Brolin’s suddenly cash rich Llwellyn Moss. Moss, with $2m in white hot drugs money under his arm, stands in a nether world between the two; mere happenstance led him to that case crammed with crisp $100 bills, the moment he picked it up, Moss put it all on the line. The whole bundle. Everything.
Jones, heading a fine cast, proves himself, once again, one of the finest screen actors working today, and the brothers Coen, well, they have nothing to prove really. But prove it they do.
My first BD viewing; yes, I know what I wrote a few posts back, but I was doomed the moment I saw clips of How The West Was Won in Smilebox. Damn you George Feltenstein…
Paramount’s Blu-ray presentation of No Country For Old Men is impeccable, or at least, if it’s not, I cannot see how it can get any better with a lossless audio track that’s as impressive as the visuals are eye-wateringly sharp. Accompanying featurettes pay handsome homage to the Coens, and quite rightly so.
Macbeth (1948; R2 DVD); Welles version of The Scottish Play famously bombed on it’s premiere (apparently Stateside audiences had problems with the accents) and it wasn’t until relatively recent years that the original version, as premiered, surfaced once more. Welles monkeys around with the Bard a little (who hasn’t?), shuffling characters, lines even whole speeches, to cram the text into 107 minutes. It was a play of which he was intensely intimate, having triumphed with it on stage for over a decade; the result is a work incredibly imaginative, accessible and polished, yet supremely cinematic. While the whole defies the budget and speed of shooting (21 days) some of the imagery is typically, and mind bogglingly, breath-taking, as Welles homicidal and psychotic Thane bestrides a brutal, alien landscape.
The Mercury Theater’s actor manager long suffered under the burden of being dubbed ‘genius’; there is no other word, frankly.
Second Sight’s transfer starts off a little shakily, but gets significantly better after the first 20 minutes or so, is available cheaply and well worth adding to your collection.
The Spanish Gardener (1956; R2 DVD); Dirk Bogarde reunited with his young Scots co-star Jon Whiteley from Charles Crichton’s Hunted four years earlier, and as cracking as that film was, Philip Leacock’s The Spanish Gardener is pisspoor. Bogarde was never too comfortable playing workin’ clarrrss fugs (the reasons explained, to some degree, in his recently published letters), but he just gets away with it in Hunted. Here, he deals with impersonating Jose, the eponymous gardener, by the simple expedient of blessing him with the accent of a contemporary BBC newsreader (World Service), and the fashion sense, oddly, of not a horny handed son of toil but a fast rising, louche, British act-or…
The boy’s Scottish accent is explained away by the fact his mother lives north of the border, while father Michael Horden, whose received English has impinged on the boy not one jot, grumps around being a royal pain in the arse, painfully arrogant and keeping both the child and Johnny Foreigner firmly in his place. It really is tedious, inconsequential fluff.
Optimum’s transfer, part of the generally very good Dirk Bogarde; Screen Icon Collection, is merely okay, the colours are a little faded, and the print is dirty and scratched. But the real disappointment is that it’s a VistaVision film, which should look much better, and is presented not only full-frame, but, I suspect, cropped heavily on both sides (and thus not even open-matte).
The Appaloosa (1966; R1 DVD); What seems vibrant, imaginative and in keeping with the whole in the stylish The Ipcress File (down to Peter Hunt’s superb editing or am I being unkind?), gets plain bloody irritating during Sidney J. Furie’s Mexican western. I lost count of the number of over the shoulder (hat, rump, gun, you name it…) shots, and every nook and cranny is used as a frame. It’s almost a parody of a Furie film.
As each shot is reshot, relit and come at again from every conceivable (and inconceivable) angle, I empathised more and more with lead Marlon Brando. His patience with Furie snapped early on, to the point where he refused to acknowledge his director, preferring to pointedly read a book on set from the moment Furie said ‘Cut’ until he begged his moody star into ‘Action’ once again.
Pretty in parts, but fer cripes sake Sid, keep the bloody camera still. Part of Universal’s Marlon Brando Collection, the transfer, as per most recent efforts from the studio, is typically excellent.
Brothers In Law (1957; R2 DVD); There’s something uniquely comforting about a Boulting Brothers comedy. Set in time like a mosquito in amber, they have a reassuring niceness, and a sense of culture that’s only a short, slightly more vulgar, step away from Ealing’s England. It is, as we know, a country that never really existed but we wish with all our hearts that it did. Brothers In Law features a wonderful cast from the Boulting’s stock company; it doesn’t glitter as, say, the more acerbic I’m Alright Jack, but it’s amiable enough. Ian Carmichael plays yet another hapless lead (nobody did it better), and any film with Miles Malleson in the castlist is usually the guarantee of a pretty good time. Later to become both a hit radio and TV series with Richard Briers as the bumbling junior barrister.
Optimum’s DVD transfer, part of their Terry-Thomas Collection, is a little shaky, and doesn’t take too kindly to being zoomed to 1.85:1 (which looks a little better than 1.66:1, but either will do) from open-matte, but it’s watchable. It’s hardly a Terry-Thomas film by the way; the Great Gap plays the junior part of, believe it or not, a Cock-er-nee wide boy.
Othello (1955; R2 DVD); Or to give it it’s full title; The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice. As reviled as Olivier’s Moor is in some quarters these days, Welles portrayal is considered as one of his finest achievements. Having said that, it may be slightly heretical to say I preferred his Macbeth (see above), but from that bravura opening shot of the magisterial landscape that is Welles Big Giant Head to the final silhouetted funeral procession (which forms both the beginning and end of the film), there’s much to admire. The legendary Micheál MacLiammóir, revered by both Welles and Ford (there; I’ve shoehorned in my mandatory reference), is also impressive; his Iago is truly loathsome, so much so, one wonder’s what the Moor of Venice saw in him to keep such a vile creature so close to his bosom in the first place. Spare a thought for poor old Robert Coote’s Roderigo, for reasons best known to the director, revoiced by Welles himself.
Second Sight trumpets that this is the ‘restored’ version, and it’s not bad, though technology has moved on so much since it was cleaned up that today’s digital do-dahs would no doubt produce an end product far better. It is sometimes excellent, sometimes not, but part of the restoration included re-recording the music soundtrack…and in full, squeaky clean 5.1 surround it simply sets my teeth on edge, like a wristwatch seen on an extra, and permanently in shot. I would love it if someone of the stature of, say, Criterion got their hands on Welles Shakespearian forays, particularly Chimes at Midnight. We can but dream.
Winter Kills (1979; R1 DVD); William Richert’s political satire comes on like ‘Monty Python’s The Parallax View’, played with an almost dead straight face by a stellar cast (Jeff Bridges, Richard Boone, Anthony Perkins, Brad Dexter, Eli Wallach and John Huston in bright red under-trollies…). An off-kilter take on the Kennedy assassination, it has a nightmare quality - the all too fleeting cameos from the likes of Toshirô Mifune, Ralph Meeker, Dorothy Malone and Sterling Hayden only only serve to heighten this dream-like atmosphere - with some genuinely bizarre laugh out loud moments; from Richard Condon’s book, plus added dollops of Lewis Carroll.
Anchor Bay’s R1 transfer is very nice indeed, and is stacked with some genuinely insightful extra features rather than the usual fluff. The documentary Who Killed Winter Kills? adds to the production’s mythos, recounting the trials and tribulations during filming, the various breaks while everyone turned out their pockets and coppered up, and how one of the backers was bumped off by impatient dealers for failing to pay his drugs bill.
Cool Hand Luke (1967; Region Free BD); In The Observer, Sam Mendes told a story of how, while he was directing Road to Perdition, he saw the late Conrad Hall in floods of tears as he was filming a close up of Paul Newman. Mendes asked what was wrong, and Hall, who also worked as cinematographer on Cool Hand Luke, replied, great droplets running down his cheeks: “He was so beautiful.”
Director Stuart Rosenberg decides that the tale of this ‘natural born world shaker’ parallels the Christ story, thus we have thinly veiled representations of God (Strother Martin’s Old Testament prison warden, clad in white), the Devil who is the ‘Walkin’ Man’ (he’s in black, natch), Pharisees (the guards) and Apostles (the chain gang). And just in case you missed it, Rosenberg even captures Newman in a pose of crucifixion. Endlessly re-watchable and entertaining, God bless the Academy for giving George Kennedy his thoroughly deserved Oscar.
And yes, Newman was damned beautiful.
Another sumptuous Hi-Definition presentation, with an interesting featurette that set me to worrying as all the extant principals were interviewed save one, though in his absence, everyone paid fulsome tribute to their star. Turns out I was right to fret; a couple of days after my viewing, Paul Newman was dead. God (I care not which one) bless him too.
How The West Was Hijacked? June 23, 2008Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , 17 comments
How The West Was Lost
Rich Hall’s BBC 4 documentary How The West Was Lost, screened as part of the digital channel’s recent Westerns Weekend, was, despite my earlier - and as it turns out totally unfounded - fears, really very good. The American comedian’s take on the western was perceptive, intelligent, thoroughly researched and neatly presented; I trembled at the thought of a low-brow gallop through the stereotypes of the genre. What we got was 90 minutes of literate, articulate and energetic dissection, enlivened by Hall’s acerbic wit, and all of it coming from someone who clearly loves the genre.
Attempting to cram the entire history of the western into a mere hour and a half is clearly an impossible task, and I suspect many fans could have taken issue with some of Hall’s observations, but I found myself riding by his side from the off, from the moment he kicked the ass of the ‘film geek’ with his laptop, his bluetooth headseat and his braying assertions (shades of Woody Allen - if only life were like this…), to his description of what he was trying to do was film a documentary; no, not at all like An Inconvenient Truth - that was a ‘Powerpoint presentation’…
My estimation of Hall rose considerably as he not only exonerated Peckinpah from those misguided souls who would have him carry the can for the stomach churning horror pornography that passes today for ‘graphic realism’, but he also visibly coloured as he spat out the sobriquet ‘fuckwit’ in relation to George ‘Dubya’ and his cowboy politics (favourite film; alledgedly High Noon, which is a little redolent of the T.U.C. adopting ‘The Strawbs’ Part of The Union as their anthem). Not only do I, as most of us surely, like a little affirmation, but I stand and whoop at the passion. Go Rich.
The only point in the How The West Was Lost where Rich (and note, I feel we are on first name terms, buddies even; Richie, Richmeister, The Richster…) and I parted company was during his clear dismissal of the Spaghetti Western, principally, the entire western canon of Sergio Leone. Hall (because now I recall the calumny, we’re back to formalities), chucked the whole bowl of spaghettis into the air, damned them with (very) faint praise, and then disdainfully smacked ‘em waaaay out over the bleachers.
The problem, as it appeared to Rich, (deep breaths; forgiveness kicking in) is that the Italians contaminated this purest of American film genres with their Marxist / Catholic sensibilities. These pantywaist Europeans pissed long and hard into the water hole. Rich grimaced and narrowed his eyes at the thought; I wanted the screen to transmogrify into an enormous Leone-esque ’scope close-up, and then for me and him to circle each other in that slow dance of death. Cue Ennio…
Over the past few years, I’ve stared deeply into the part of my soul that wants to be buried at John Ford Point and I’ve come to the conclusion that - gulp - I too, am not a huge fan of the Italian Western per se (now we eschew the ever so slightly xenophobic connotations ‘Spaghetti’ brings to the table).
But I am a huge fan of Sergio Leone and the westerns he fashioned with various talented collaborators; yes, they’re pretty much all ’something to do with death’, which is in itself particularly Catholic, still, aren’t all westerns? Good meets evil; someone has to end face down in the dust. Though in Leone’s case, good meets evil…and usually a third character who straddles both heaven and hell. As for the politics, well, that’s a little more complicated, and more of that later.
Yet all Leone’s westerns are undeniably made by a filmaker who has a genuine passion for the genre, the films of his youth, those halcyon days before Benito came to town, made himself sheriff and buggered up the idyll. Westerns may affirm an idealised view of America for a country that even now seems desperate to hang on to a myth of nation building and it’s pioneers as the very apotheosis of rugged individualism, but their appeal fell far outside the borders of the country from which they sprang.
The whole world over, westerns spoke to small boys, little pardners of all ages, who just needed heroes; Leone simply aped his heroes, those behind as well as in front of the camera, at the same time bringing something unique to the table, an outsiders view of the western legend. Art sometimes reflected reality in an era when Walter Cronkite was bringing increasingly bad, and increasingly graphic, news from South East Asia into America’s comfortable and cosy living rooms. In life as in fiction, the lines between the good, the bad and the ugly were blurring.
It wouldn’t be the first time, or the last; I’ve touched on American interventionism as inspiration before - Leone’s idol John Ford’s Rio Grande approves of and reflects American foreign policy in Korea, and surely Vietnam informed The Wild Bunch. Among others.
In the States particularly, the hoopla that surrounded Leone’s supposed ‘realistic’ violence was not only turning into a very queasy joke, but smacked of Americans circling the wagons to protect their mythos, their westerns from them thar pesky furriners. Leone was accused of hijacking the western, but the truth is, before he burst on the scene so dynamically, the genre, if not drowning, was certainly going down for the second time. Leone didn’t hijack it as much as point a genre that was losing it’s way into a whole other direction, one which some talented directors would pick up and run with, and lesser artists would grubbily exploit, even to this day.
Either way, Leone must now be seen, surely, as among the giants; at the very least, as the Richmeister generously pointed out, no Sergio, no Clint. He still unforgiven Rich..?
Duck You Sucker (1971)
Some spoilers, I should warn you…
Produced at the height of the Vietnam conflict, Duck You Sucker - aka (the director’s preferred title) Giù la testa, A Fistful of Dynamite, Once Upon A Time…The Revolution, depending on which country it was released in - was Sergio Leone’s corrosive look at revolutionary politics. I will, by the way, stick with Duck You Sucker as the title, my comments here referring to the U.S. R1 DVD of that name, restored, mono sound and all, with scenes reinstated from various cuts following the première. Cuts. ‘Twas ever thus for the burly Italian.
Duck You Sucker depicts a fly-blown, dirt poor Mexico, a country in complete turmoil with ragged arsed revolutionaries tearing at the throat of heavily armed Government forces, an army bolstered by foreign mercenaries and capable of breathtaking atrocities; the tools of any despotic regime.
The ruling classes, we are shown from the off, are powerful, rich, corrupt and contemptible of the poor. The poor simply want what the rich have; it’s the getting of it that’s at the heart of Duck You Sucker. Leone, scion of Italy, the country that down the centuries has embraced bloody change, opens his film with a quote from Mao Tse-tung:
“The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence.”
We are, then, drawn into the first act of violence, but it’s hardly revolutionary; Mexican bandit Juan Miranda (a hugely enjoyable Rod Steiger, employing an outrageous accent) and his family of six boys (plus ageing father), hold up a plush coachload of characters who are the very definition of bourgeois excess, killing the driver and shotgun, Juan raping the only woman in the group. If it’s a political statement, it is one that is pure and simple; you’ve got it, I want it. And I have the gun.
Moreover, Leone portrays this ship of fools as wallowing in a cesspit of their own excess. The coach itself is massive, a railway carriage affair pulled by eight straining horses through the pisspoor countryside. Inside the pampered posse gulp down an epicurean feast, swilling it down with copious amounts of wine, the camera focusing on their mouths so that they become glistening anuses. They are talking, literally, out of their backsides. The amoral Miranda has no time for them, only what they have, and at the end of his particular rainbow, where they put it; a nice juicy bank.
Providence sends him John Mallory (another excellent performance, and another outrageous accent from James Coburn), an I.R.A. explosives expert turned soldier of fortune. As we learn from a series of unfolding flashbacks - Leone follows the old Fordian dictum of there being little use in discarding a good trick - John is both a fighter and a lover, one-third of a ménage à trois, but an act of betrayal, or more correctly two acts of betrayal that lead to the same end, culminate in a devastating act of vengeance. On the run, he has quit his native Ireland.
Mallory is both a revolutionary and an idealist. But his tacit partnership with Miranda means that he’s soon forced to reassess not only what revolution means for those expendable agents of change, the poor bloody proletariat, but also for those chattering classes who promote it, urging others onto the guns, while at the same time sharing the same self-serving morals as those they seek to depose. Viva Zapata this is not.
Leone, and his fellow screenwriters Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, gift Miranda the dialogue which reveal their own feelings on the nature of armed struggle. A pivotal speech comes as John studiously reads a copy of Bakunin’s political tract The Patriotism, and makes a throwaway comment about ‘the revolution’. Juan, who is, much to his disgust, becoming an unwilling and unwitting hero of the struggle, angrily turns to the Irishman:
“I know what I am talking about when I am talking about the revolutions. The people who read the books go to the people who can’t read the books, the poor people, and say, “We have to have a change.” So, the poor people make the change, ah? And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat, eh? But what has happened to the poor people? They’re dead! That’s your revolution.
Shhh… So, please, don’t tell me about revolutions! And what happens afterwards? The same fucking thing starts all over again!”
John gives a thoughtful grunt, then tosses his book, with it’s series of earnest page markers, into the mud. Essentially, Juan’s speech neatly underscores the apparently glib opening Mao quote; no revolution without blood and sacrifice, but whose blood? Whose sacrifice? Well, Miranda’s for a start. In a scene that seems to echo the Mai Lai massacre of then recent notoriety, Juan’s family is wiped out, their bodies among the heaps of corpses that the camera glides over, touching on this body and that before settling on the image of the bandit’s tiniest son, his startled, innocent eyes wide open, staring into the dark.
Later, Leone’s camera sweeps majestically over the rail yards as the army machine guns pits of prisoners by their hundreds; if the Italian director has already forced his viewers to draw parallels with a contemporary revolution, here he shows us an image the could easily have come from the conflict of his youth, drawing both together. This is what happens in war; Mussolini and Hitler (to name but two) held no exclusivity when it comes to the authorship of unspeakable crimes against humanity. And the madness goes on.
Mallory is again thrust before the realities when the revolutionary leader Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli) is captured and the Irishman, hidden in the shadows, spies him fingering compatriots for Government forces. When Villega is released and rejoins the struggle, presumably as a double-agent, only John knows the depths to which this hypocrite is capable of sinking and that there’s hardly a cigarillo wrapper between him and mealy-mouthed Governor Jaime (Franco Graziosi), the hated figurehead of the oppressive government forces.
It’s interesting that the Americans portrayed in the film are fat-cat peripheral figures; Donati and Leone’s story, however, has the U.S. as the country Juan and John choose as escape, to put the whole slaughterhouse of revolution behind them. America, a land of milk, honey and those ‘big fat juicy banks’. Another myth, and one that’s ultimately out of reach for them both.
If all this seems a little heavy going, then I apologise for giving that impression, for Duck You Sucker is a fun film. Time and again, Leone follows a great tradition (dare I mention Ford again?) of mixing sometimes grim narrative with humour and Steiger and Coburn (neither, incidentally, Leone’s first choices for their parts), consummate movie actors, are more than adept at both. In one scene, Juan contemplates his loss, and sits in twisted torment, tears streaming down his face as Mallory looks on unable to offer anything by way of comfort where no comfort can be found; from a cage above, a songbird shits on Juan’s head. Slowly he wipes the slime away, looks up in resignation and says; ‘But for the rich you sing…’ John’s face creases into that familiar toothy smile; tragedy and comedy - two sides of the same currency.
In the comparitively slight, but often astonishing, Leone canon, Duck You Sucker is usually overlooked. However, it is now being re-evaluated as one of his very best, beautifully shot by cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini and produced with all the love, care and budget which, from For a Few Dollars More onwards, fans had come to expect; the hundreds of extras that fill gorgeous - occasionally horrifying - vistas that go on forever in towering crane shots, the sets and costumes and particularly the period uniforms of the military, the wonderful Ennio Morricone score, the startlingly humongous explosions that put the wind up his leads who were cheerfully urged ‘closer, closer…’ by their safely out of range director.
There’s delight too in the ’Wicked Witch of The West’ outfit - to suggest a potent, but pantomime combination of power & evil - that he clads actress Rosita Torosh in for that opening scene. It’s that fine attention to detail, the smallest references which he enjoyed and knew would appeal to fellow film buffs, which underlines Leone’s love affair with movies and the western in particular. Leone didn’t simply hijack the western, he re-energised it, however briefly.
Incidentally, while Mallory’s I.R.A. backstory is another clear nod in the direction of Ford, one wonders if the very first shot of Duck You Sucker, of Juan urinating into a nest of ants - and onto his leg - is another sly dig at his rival Sam Peckinpah (Leone showed Sam dead and buried in My Name is Nobody), whose famous opening to The Wild Bunch, of a scorpion stinging itself as it is attacked by red ants is a clear foreshadowing of events to come. Leone’s ants end up drowning in foaming piss and trodden under foot - another foreshadowing; socio-political certainly, but Marxism be damned.
One can only imagine what the suits at MGM thought of that opening scene, not to mention a film that dealt with revolution, the caravan of chaos that routinely follows the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, at a time when well-fed, privileged middle-class kids were tearing up the Berkeley campus. They probably choked on their martinis. And of course, at some 160 minutes long, the running time became - yet again - one of the battlegrounds on which Leone fought and lost.
As much as 40 minutes was hacked out following the première, dismantling one of the central themes - and one rarely addressed by the director up until this point - the fulcrum of real human relationships; desire, love, lust, revenge, loss, regret. It’s only recently, following MGM’s restoration on DVD can we appreciate the fuller picture that Duck You Sucker paints. Yes, it’s long and languid - it would hardly be Leone otherwise - but it’s a beautifully involving piece of work that actually belies the apparently bum-numbing length. Ironic that Leone actually didn’t want to direct (he had Peter Bogdanovich in mind), but both his leads threatened to walk unless he took the chair; the Italian wouldn’t do so again, officially, for another 13 years.
The final shot of Duck You Sucker is of a bereft, angry Miranda staring into the lens of the camera, into the eyes of you and I. ‘What about me?’, a plaintive line of Juan’s dialogue from earlier in the movie is repeated and in response up comes the title ‘Duck You Sucker’ - keep your head down, and run the other way when they urge you to fight.
Or simply steal their money; much safer…