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Edge of Darkness August 20, 2007

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Action / Adventure / Thriller , 5 comments

In 1985, heavily pregnant with our first child, my wife was admitted into hospital, doctors concerned at her steadily rising blood pressure. There was nothing to be alarmed about, we were constantly assured by Labour Ward staff; ‘…just routine’, ‘…everything will be fine, no need to worry’. And yet there was, there really was.”Did you remember?” said my partner, clutching at my arm as she lay in her newly made up bed, her brow knotted with anxiety, “Did you remember to tape Edge of Darkness?”

Katherine Louise - Katie, Kate, or just plain Kat to her contemporaries - was born on December 2, that same night episode five, ‘Northmoor’, was broadcast and duly captured on VHS. Just over a week or so later, my wife returned from hospital with our beautiful daughter swaddled cosily in a blanket. Exhausted, relieved, glowing, she relaxed on the sofa and, while our child slept soundly (a miracle in itself), demanded we sit through all six episodes of this majestic BBC series back to back.

Music rises to a crescendo, fade out, cut to:

2007. That little baby, my little baby, is now 21-years-old and on a different medium - DVD - ’Detective Ronald Craven’ is still red eyed mourning the death of the his 21-year-old daughter, his little girl. This most significant of television dramas suddenly takes on a whole new significance. We’re joined at the hip, this bluff Yorkshire cop and I, he’s living in a horrifying world of pain that I can at long last - but have no real wish whatsoever to - truly empathise with. The crushing weight of his grief suddenly reaches out of the screen and becomes suffocating. I stifle a sob, silent tears prick my eyes.

Just as that opening, gut-wrenching scene in Don’t Look Now during a TV showing a couple of decades ago, roused my wife who said quietly: ‘I’m just going to check on Kate…’, I glance at the window, urging her car to turn into the drive. Powerful stuff, the ties that bind. And they only get stronger. I feel a certain synergy at work…

Edge of Darkness

…He cried like a baby
He screamed like a panther
In the middle of the night
And he saddled his pony
And he went for a ride

It was the time of the preacher
In the year of ‘01
Now the lesson is over
And the killing’s begun…

The Time of The Preacher - Willie Nelson 

Hark! What is that noise like ten thousand honey bees? A host of angels, a veritable celestial choir of cherubim, a’plucking at instruments fashioned by omnipotent Titans? Better than that, gentle reader, for it is Eric Clapton. God himself, in fact, who, with Michael Kaman’s orchestrations, and a few choice popular songs (Tom Waits, New Order, and let’s give a really big hand to Mr Willie Nelson, whose lyrics above almost form a libretto …) gave the BBC TV nuclear thriller Edge of Darkness a great and wonderful gift, something that would enable it to defy time itself. A score that was written in the mid-’80s.

But doesn’t sound like it.

Of course, it’s not the only reason that Edge of Darkness is still so very powerful, so relevant today. Far from it, but, unlike many contemporary productions the score doesn’t set it firmly and irretrievably in the period, like a mosquito caught in amber, or Axel Foley trotting through Beverly Hills to a Harold Faltermeyer riff.

Clapton’s agonised guitar, gently weeping for, well, any number of things as we are soon to find out, is the first thing we hear as the curtain rises on this finely crafted six part series. Eric’s guitar, backed by the irritating honking of an alarm, guards peering warily into the murk, and the clank and rattle of train carriages, one of them routinely carrying an innocent looking flask containing enough nuclear material to irradiate a good part of the western hemisphere for two lifetimes or more.

If you aren’t hooked now, even after these few seconds, you probably never will be.

[Watching a recording of ‘Come Dancing’] Nobody dances like the British! They deserved the Falklands.
Darius Jedburgh

The story. While investigating a union ballot rigging scandal, Yorkshire CID officer Ronald Craven’s daughter Emma is brutally murdered. Craven subsequently finds that Emma is part of a shadowy ecological action group, Gaia, that has broken into Northmoor, a nuclear waste processing plant, and the subject of an American takeover. With the help of a larger than life CIA officer, Darius Jedburgh, Craven determines to get into Northmoor, to retrace the Gaia team’s footsteps, and unlock the underground plant’s dark secret.

Edge of Darkness was, and remains, a television phenomenon. Eerily prescient, touchingly human, unbearably moving, gently humorous, it struck gold at the 1986 BAFTAs winning a clutch of awards, after receiving seven nominations. Bob Peck deservedly took ‘Best Actor’ or his role as Craven, a characterisation that must have put the 41-years-old Peck through an emotional wringer for weeks on end. Craven spends most of the piece in utter despair, willing to risk all to try and make sense of his loss, but more importantly perhaps, to discover simply who his daughter, Emma (Joanne Whalley), was, who she had become, and why. There’s a quite marvellous shot, Edge of Darkness’s most iconic perhaps, of a completely uncomprehending Craven, lying blank eyed on his dead daughter’s bed, the room still full of the detritus of Emma’s childhood, her teddy bear clutched to his chest in one hand, her gun lying casually across his crotch in the other; a neat Freudian touch.

Edge of Darkness

Craven’s relationship with his daughter is central to the narrative, and any queasy ambiguity I may have sensed in it in the mid-’80s, has now evaporated. After she’s blasted into bloody eternity by both barrells of a sawn off shotgun, Emma returns to haunt her father. She appears and disappears randomly, post mortem, to tell her father some unwanted home truths, to drop the odd hint. Craven’s mind, trying to make sense of a senseless murder, begins to slot piece after piece into the puzzle with these clues ostensibly and dramatically, from beyond the grave. But of course, Emma’s dead and buried, and it’s the grief stricken copper’s imagination that simply won’t, can’t, let her rest in peace. Not yet, not until he knows why.

It was the stoic Emma, barely 10-years-old, who comforted her father when Craven lost his wife to cancer. She was the rock on which Craven clung in sheer desperation, the only constant in his world. But Emma has been living a life of which Craven knows nothing; she’s the daughter of a police officer and a suspected ‘terrorist’, and it’s this duality that’s a recurring theme in Edge of Darkness. Most everyone appears to be playing a double game, while themselves being relentlessly played.

“Well, bodies kept turning up in the bunkers, and you need air support to play outta the rough. Kinda puts you off your game.”
Darius Jedburgh

Peck isn’t given the choicest lines in Troy Kennedy Martin’s densely packed and convoluted story - those go to Joe Don Baker, also nominated, for his juicy portrayal of the hugely enjoyable CIA spook Darius Jedburgh - but, the camera doesn’t lie, constantly roaming over Peck’s face in tight close-ups that shriek volumes. Peck defines Craven’s implacable, truly haunted stillness perfectly, he is the calm at the heart of the storm that wheels around this irresistible, immovable detective.

Director Martin Campbell and Producer Michael Wearing lifted their award for ‘Best Drama Series/Serial’, Andrew Dunn, who produced some memorable imagery won ‘Best Film Cameraman’, and ‘Best Film Editor’ was shared between Ardan Fisher and Dan Rae. Of course, messers Clapton and Kaman took the ‘Best Original Television Music’ category, and Joanne Whalley, an actress who showed so much promise before flitting to Hollywood to become a hyphen, was nominated but did not win.

There was no BAFTA for Best Script; had there been, Kennedy Martin, a veteran scriptwriter with The Italian Job, Z Cars, The Sweeney and many others to his credit, would have been a shoo-in. Delightfully, it’s a script that rewards on multiple viewings, those quick-fire, almost throwaway, lines revealing new depths of character, new twists and turns as cross becomes double, triple cross. No-one is quite whom they seem, no-one appears to have a clear motivation. Except Craven.

It’s almost extraordinary, in these days of bloated TV franchises, that Kennedy Martin manages to fit a narrative with such scope into this neat package. ‘Nuclear thriller’ almost diminishes the scale of what’s on offer here. From almost parochial beginnings, it becomes apparent that at stake is the future of the human race itself, whose fate of first becoming the slaves of the new atomic demi-Gods, and then crossing the universe as some sort of star hopping nuclear stormtroopers is clearly mapped out by the chairman of the ‘Fusion Corporation of Kansas’ (a sly allusion, I believe, to The Wizard of Oz) Jerry Grogan (Kenneth Nelson). This diminutive, fascistic American, is heading what to all intents and purposes is a putsch, in his thrall, the most destructive power on the planet both freeing and enslaving mankind. As Edge of Darkness demonstrates, decades on from Oppenheimer, the wielding of such ultimate power can also bring ultimate destruction, especially under the immature stewardship of homo sapians. If man is willing to glibly offer up his home world as sacrifice for such a nightmare, then what can save the Earth…or is the planet, is she, more than capable of defending herself?

That’s the problem with plutonium, Craven; it’s limited in its application. It’s not user-friendly. But as a vehicle for regaining one’s self-respect, oh, it’s got a lot goin’ for it. Damn right I turned it into a bomb!
Darius Jedburgh

These were controversial issues that were at the cutting edge of the news agenda back then, far more so today. The ‘Gaia’ theories - that living and nonliving parts of the earth are viewed as a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism - postulated by Professor James Lovelock in the 1960s, and dubbed ‘crank science’ by the scientific establishment at the time, were key to Kennedy Martin’s story, as the hypothesis gained new credence by what was still a nascent ecological movement. That man would sow the seeds of his own destruction, that the planet would fight back, seemed like the stuff of science fantasy however, even the blink of an eye that was 22 years ago.

This is heady stuff for a story that begins with an almost mundane police investigation in deepest Yorkshire. For Kennedy Martin, it was a deliberate dramatic device: “The art is to start with a familiar idea and take the audience with you on a plane, so that when they look down they are thousands of miles above the Earth.”  Edge of Darkness; it’s a wide-ranging thriller, it’s an intimate human tragedy, it’s also a very hefty swipe at the nation’s contemporary nuclear strategy, wearing it’s left leaning politics so very visibly on it’s sleeve that then Labour Shadow Cabinet member Michael Meacher MP was given a small ’acting’ role (as himself). The Tories were apoplectic. Oh, goody…

Kennedy Martin has said his series was driven by a feeling of political pessimism, (which this writer shared), Reagan and ‘Star Wars’ in The White House, the jingoistic Thatcher in Number 10, and a feeling that Britain was being herded towards becoming a nuclear state. But there is also, he says, a moral optimism, inspired by the very notion of ‘Gaia’, the birth of  new movements and new ideas.

Intriguingly, Kennedy Martin initally intended Craven and Grogan to be polar opposites in every way, our Yorkshire hero to be the embodiment of the ‘Green Man’ “…the spirit of the planet” he recalled “whose destiny was to confront and destroy in the name of the planet the free-market forces of modern entrepreneurial capitalism.”

At the end of the story, Kennedy Martin famously had to be dissuaded from the ultimate ‘green’ denouement - turning Craven into a tree, an idea both Peck and Campbell baulked at. In Troy Kennedy Martin’s introduction to Edge of Darkness (Faber and Faber, 1990) the writer says: “This aspect of Edge of Darkness usually separated the men from the boys at Television Centre. “I am writing a story about a detective who turns into a tree.” “Oh, yes,” would be the guarded reply. “Who’s this for, Channel 4?” Eventually I was persuaded out of the notion but not before some of its spirit had rubbed off on Craven’s character.”

For Joe Don Baker, his portrayal of the golf-obsessed Jedburgh is probably the role of his lifetime. Jedburgh is old-school CIA, he knows all the dirty tricks, invented most of them, he’s a wildly eccentric loose cannon, almost teetering on the edge of insanity. Baker’s performance is as huge as Peck’s is subtle, and he makes his red, white and blue warrior not only Craven’s best ally, but also the one most likely to put a bullet in his brain. As the mob hit man in Charley Varrick, Baker was deadly and detestable, as the unpredictable and unstable Colonel Jedburgh he simply lights up the screen, but his character, if anything, is every bit as dangerous. Baker was fulsome in his praise of the production: “In America, they just churn these things out, you mess it up and it’s ‘move on son’. They just couldn’t have been better, they asked me time and again did I want another take and I could do it as often as I needed until I felt it was right. Quality was everything.”

They said get into the ball game, and steal the ball.
Darius Jedburgh

It’s Jedburgh who immediately sizes up Craven, croons Willie Nelson’s ‘The Time of The Preacher’, which Craven, smiling a knowing smile, duets. Favourite Jedburgh moments are plentiful; the sight of this bear-like killer hunkering down on his sofa with a bucket of popcorn and a recording of Come Dancing; upending his golf bag and tipping balls, clubs, a carbine and several hand grenades on the floor; realising that Craven is going to break into Northmoor, his face wreathed by a huge grin at the prospect; producing two poisonous, panic inducing bars of plutonium from a briefcase - ‘Get it while it’s hot!’; skittering purposefully round the Highland cottage for that last grim showdown.

The rest of the casting is perfection; the gorgeous Zoë Wanamaker as ‘Gaia’ activist Clementine, Tim McInnery as Emma’s slimy lover, Charles Kay and Ian McNeice as a pair of British spies, the very antithesis of Bond, John Woodvine, Jack Watson, right on down to the Gordon Wharmby as the ’Caretaker’ - the devil is in the detail, and the detailing is really quite special. I wondered about Jedburgh, and how much like Brando’s Kurtz he looked in his uniform. There’s also the scene where Craven and Jedburgh break into a secure room piled high with art and luxury goods, antiques, an MG sportscar, fine wine and food - tinned lobster, caviar - stashed away during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Watching the pair tuck incongruously into a candlelit dinner deep beneath the earth, also reminded me of Apocalypse Now. It is likely coincidence, but I like to think of it as a nod.

Edge of Darkness is one of the great television highlights, certainly from my lifetime. Most TV is really quite ephemeral, but any decent drama can stand the test of time, while some actually improve with age, with each viewing. Edge of Darkness is that rare beast, a critically lauded production that’s as satisfying, as relevant, and - for this viewer at least - more gripping, more personal and thought provoking than it was in 1985. Even if someone may have to ask: ‘What’s a union leader? And what’s a coal miner..?’

I am NOT on YOUR side!
Ronald Craven

The BBC’s two-disc DVD set has been around for a while now in the U.K., superseding an inferior release from Revelation. The transfer is quite decent, blocking occasionally on the darker scenes, but overall it’s clean, with good sound; it looks and sounds exactly what it is, two decades old telly. There are a number of extras; a 35 minute featurette ‘Magnox - Secrets of The Edge of Darkness’, a clip from the BBC’s ‘Did You See?’, Bob Peck - who tragically died in 1999 - relaxing with Frank Bough, and his knitwear, on the ‘Breakfast Time’ sofa, BAFTA interviews with Peck and Baker, plus two more interviews post the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards from 1986 with Peck and Michael Wearing. There’s also an isolated score, but, as it’s used sparingly and infrequently (unlike today), it’s not something you’d listen to recreationally.

New Zealander Martin Cambell, has, of course, gone on to grander productions - Casino Royale is just one - but none better. Five years ago he expressed a desire to bring Edge of Darkness to the big screen. I close my eyes and think all-action car chases, explosions, a Yorkshire cop transmogrified to one of New York’s finest, Grogan replaced by a Russian oligarch. Dear God, Martin, nooooo…

The Perils of Paulette December 20, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Horror, Comedy, Action / Adventure / Thriller, Film & DVD Reviews , add a comment

Reap The Wild Wind (1942) 

I’m desperately in love with Paulette Goddard. There; I said it, and I don’t care who knows! The only impediment to my ardour is the age difference - the luscious Ms Goddard was born in 1910 - and the fact that she died nearly 17 years ago. But nevertheless, I’m in love…and I sigh when she hits the screen. *Sigh*…

1942’s Reap The Wild Wind was a genuine Hollywood blockbuster from the Paramount studios, and had all the ingredients, and then some, necessary for a big, flashy slice of hugely entertaining hokum - a fantastic cast, a rip-roaring story, Oscar winning special effects, three-strip Technicolor cinematography that is good enough to make you weep. And the last vital ingredient to pull this circus together and make it all work. What’s that? Well if I tell you that the full USA title was Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind.

Not in any sense a great auteur, C.B. knew how to entertain, even if he was scathing in his private assessment of the audience that lapped up his brand of three-ring showmanship. His trademark was entertaining, and entertaining BIG. So here we have a movie that DeMille himself - he was never shy - sells to his audience in his opening narration, a story, set in the 1840’s, that ’sweeps the ocean, with mighty ships plying their trade, braving the hurricanes off the Florida Keys, providing the lifeblood for American commerce…’ It’s a bit of a flag waver, what with the war and all…

We open with ‘Captain Jack Stuart’ (John Wayne) unconscious on the deck of his own ship, his villainous first mate ‘Mathias Widgeon’ (Victor Kilian) about to drive the clipper onto the unforgiving rocks of Key West.

It’s a vile plot by the most evil of salvage men ‘King Cutler’ (played with wonderful relish by the great Raymond Massey) to get himself half the value of the ship’s cargo for nothing more than a simple bribe; a game he’s been playing to make himself and his cohorts fantastically rich, while the ship owners, and principally their attorney ‘Steve Tolliver’ (Ray Milland), determine to seek him out and hang him and his kind from the yard arm.

Slap in the middle is ’Loxi Claiborne’ (the aforementioned Ms Goddard), who runs a decent, honest salvage company. While Cutler and his men scurry about ripping the cargo out of Stuart’s sinking ship, it’s Loxi and ‘Capt. Phil Philpott’ (another superb sketch by character actor Lynne Overman) who set about rescuing the crew, even though Capt. Phil grumbles ‘men don’t bring no salvage money’.

Stuart is wrongly dismissed as Captain and he blames Tolliver. But it’s the attorney who, despite the acrimony, fights for Stuart to be given command of the line’s new steam flagship The Southern Cross. However both men’s love for Loxi is about to lead them into deep water, double crossing and death. The action gets a little bogged down in a meldodramatic courtroom sequence, but the film balances that with a superb underwater sequence, which took two months to film, involving a giant rubber squid (oh, c’mon give ‘em a break - in 1942 that looked as real as, well, ‘Bruce’ did in Jaws), a race against time and a Florida hurricane.

It’s one hell of a romp; Goddard gives us glimpses of what her ‘Scarlett O’Hara’ might had been like had she passed her screen test, flouncing about in petticoats and tossing off a ‘fiddle di dee’ here and there at her black ‘mammy’ (the black characters are treated, I’m afraid, shamefully). Milland’s Tolliver is something of a ‘Scarlet’ too, a Pimpernel figure, ever so slightly camp with his ‘talking’ lap dog, dandy clothes and just where did he get that hairstyle? Thankfully, he is not quite the hapless fop he appears - he’s an action man when required (of course), taking charge when Waynes angry, but dithering, Stuart can’t get his act together.

It’s worth mentioning here that for the 1954 theatrical re-release, the ‘Duke’ was given top billing in posters because of his increased star status, and Susan Hayward (who plays Goddard’s little sister), and who had since 1942 become a major star instead of a supporting player, was misleadingly billed second. Formerly top-billed Milland got third billing in the new campaign, while leading lady Goddard was demoted to fourth billing. I might add that Milland’s likeness doesn’t even make the front cover of the current DVD release (that’s Goddard and Wayne) where he’s given third billing…it’s worse on the back cover, where Milland comes a lowly fifth. Ah, fickle Hollywood…

Look among the cast too for Robert Preston, Charles Bickford, Walter Hampden, Louise Beavers, Hedda Hopper (in her last film role before she started to bite the hand that fed her). Victor Young’s sweeping score is very redolent of the period, all in all, fans of the Golden Era of Hollywood will be delighted to see the film again…and again.

Universal’s DVD has been around in R1 almost since the dawn of the format, but was only released as a stand alone disc in R2 a couple of years ago, after previously being part of the same studio’s generally poor John Wayne Box Set. Not that long ago (not least for slapdash stuff like the ‘Wayne’ box) the mere mention of Universal would send shivers down my spine. Thankfully, the studio has upped its game both in Region 1 and Region 2, and now - what a turnaround - can be generally relied on to do the right thing at least as far as transfer quality is considered. But what a revelation Reap The Wild Wind is - it’s nigh on Warners top-standard quality, true eye candy.

The colours - and I just love three-strip Technicolor when it’s presented as well as this - are wonderfully rendered; just check the plumage on the parrot in the tavern sequence for instance (or the plumage on Ms. Goddard…). There’s a little grain early on, but not too much to complain about, and it’s as clean as a whistle with very few nicks and marks. Universal has done a fantastic job with a beautiful transfer that can only have come from elements in top class condition. The mono sound is clear and strong.

The shame is that there are no extras, save for a trailer, also in excellent shape. It would have been nice to have had a featurette on Reap The Wild Wind, or a documentary on Milland, Goddard, or DeMille, that larger than life figure himself. But really, with the film looking this eye wateringly good, it’s almost churlish to gripe, and this is Universal after all, a studio that is oft times quite casual, and a little stingy on the extras front, particularly as far as many of its Oscar winning back catalogue films are concerned.

But the film, the standard of the transfer, is paramount (sorry Universal; no pun intended). We have to be thankful for small mercies.

The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Geoff Montgomery: It’s worse than horrible because a zombie has no will of his own. You see them sometimes walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.
Larry Lawrence: You mean like Democrats?
 

Two years earlier and Ms Goddard and Bob Hope were busy trying - and succeeding - to recreate the success of their previous year’s smash The Cat and The Canary. The veteran, and versatile, George Marshall was in the director’s chair, picking the bones (pun fully intended) out of Dickey & Goddard’s (no relation) pre-WW1 Broadway play The Ghost Breaker. They added an ’s’, made some tweaks to the gags, put some backbone into the female lead’s character and came away with an 85 minute comedy thriller, a ‘frightmare’ with laughs, the very epitome of both the genre and cinematic efficiency.

‘Mary Carter’ (Goddard) inherits an eerie castle, her family’s ancestral home built on glum, forbidding island off the coast of Cuba. Mary is off to claim her birthright, and gets tangled up with radio star ’Larry Lawrence’ (Hope on cracking form), who’s on the run from the mob and the law for a murder he thinks, mistakenly, he’s committed. With attempts on Mary’s life, voodoo warnings and threats of death and disaster dogging their every move, our heroine, Larry and his butler ‘Alex’ (Willie Best), come up against spooks, zombies…and an all too human menace.

There’s not a scene wasted, not a line of spare dialogue in The Ghost Breakers. The strengths of The Cat and The Canary are here yet again; plenty of laughs, lots of frights all in a tight, economical package. Yes, Willie Best, is there to roll his eyes and knock his knees, but he’s a great foil for Hope, who can’t himself appear too much of a dunderhead. He does, after all, have to solve the mystery, save the girl and find the family treasure.

It’s light family fare, but it’s still marvellously entertaining with a snappy script that cracks wise, Bob Hope-style (naturally), impressive sets, mattes and lighting (Oscar winner Charles Lang was the cinematographer) that create a suitable ‘haunted house’ ambiance. The special effects - particularly the ‘ghost walk’ - are still quite impressive and Noble Johnson as the zombie is really very creepy indeed.

Goddard herself is not quite the woman in distress that some may expect. She screams to order, certainly, but she also brings an eye-flashing feistiness to the character that’s quite refreshing. Though, it has to be said, it is typical of some of the better films of the period. The ’40s, I think, provided a bumper crop of fantastic roles for women, at a time when, by sheer necessity, women were coming into their own in a society at war. Ironically, as the decade faded so did the gorgeous Ms Goddard’s star. A star that burned for a relatively short time, but wonderfully bright.

You’ll find a decent supporting cast too, among them; Richard Carlson, Anthony Quinn, Paul Fix and Robert Ryan’s first ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ screen appearance.

Universal’s R1 DVD of Paramount’s The Ghost Breakers is again pretty impressive for a 66-year-old black and white film; it’s very clean and tidy with decent contrast and no evidence that I could see of any obtrusive edge-enhancement. The soundtrack is similarly free of any clicks, or distortion with clear dialogue and an atmospheric score by Ernest Toch.

All that and Paulette Goddard in a bathing costume? A no-brainer, gentle reader…

Hearts and Bones October 11, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Action / Adventure / Thriller, Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , add a comment

It’s slightly odd that Steve McQueen followed up Le Mans with another film that has a documentary feel to it, Junior Bonner. Both films take realistic looks at real sporting events, with huge amounts of footage shot both during the famous French 24 hours race, and the oldest rodeo in the world, at Prescott, Arizona. And you can write the plots of each on the back of a fag packet (actually the ‘plot’ of Le Mans, is virtually contained within the title.)

But that’s where the similarity ends. It’s as if Peckinpah had seen McQueen’s personal and very, very expensive racing movie and decided he’d show him just how it could and should be done.

If Le Mans is about anything at all, it’s about a racing driver doing what most racing drivers do at some time in their lives; confronting his fears, coming to terms with a past failure. Ostensibly, Junior Bonner’s main plot-line - not the theme it must be pointed out - is precisely the same, but while we know absolutely nothing about the characters at the of Le Mans - and frankly could care less - Peckinpah lays out the life of a family about whom we come to care very much indeed.

Le Mans (1971)

By the time negotiations for Le Mans began, Steve McQueen, a ‘petrol head’ since his teens, was a true Hollywood superstar, his place in the firmament having been cemented by Peter Yates’ thrilling Bullitt. He could pick and choose his roles, practically name his own price, and thus had at his disposal the best damned toy box in the world.

Fulfilling a dream, he choose to make a film about motorsport; the American race scene had already been covered (by Paul Newman at the Indianapolis 500 in 1969’s Winning), as had the Grand Prix circuit in John Frankenheimer’s eponymous 1966 film (McQueen was courted for the part that eventually went to Jim Garner); so the day / night race at Le Mans it was.

Jointly produced by McQueen’s company Solar and Cinema Center 100, the movie making arm of CBS (who ploughed a vast $6m into the project, which included $750,000 for the star, plus points). Nothing was too good for McQueen who demanded, and got, total control. Can you hear any alarm bells yet, gentle reader?

The best racing drivers in the world were hired, not simply to give the race scenes an adrenalin fuelled vérité, but also, one suspects, so that McQueen could join their company for a while, get behind the wheel and actually become one of these tarmacadam gladiators. The stuff of fantasy…or a recipe for disaster.

It was at this point that the wheels started to come off…

Director John Sturges had a vision of a tragic love story with Le Mans simply as the backdrop. McQueen demanded that the focus of the film be on the track. One of them had to go, and with Sturges went much of his footage, which the star deemed unusable. In came hired gun Lee H. Katzin (largely a TV director) at the helm, but it was McQueen calling the shots. Reshooting meant the budget ballooned and there was also the little problem of the script. Which wasn’t quite finished…

CBS smelt trouble, shut down production and even considered paying off McQueen and bringing in a more pliable name. $1.5m over budget and two months late they completed the film; McQueen was involved in two horrendous smashes (from which he walked away), former F1 driver David Piper wasn’t so lucky, losing part of a leg (he’s thanked ‘for his sacrifice’ in the end credits). Not long after the film’s release in the States, McQueen went bankrupt and Solar virtually ceased to function as a production company. No, it wasn’t a happy time for the man who was - is - the very essence of cool.

So what do we have? In the end, we have a film with almost no narrative and the fact that it’s some 37 minutes in before we hear a line of intelligible dialogue tells its own story. McQueen’s Michael Delaney arrives at Le Mans staring moodily at the repaired Armco barrier where, the previous year, his car had been involved in an accident that lead to the death of a young Italian driver.

The driver’s widow Lisa Belgetti (Elsa Anderson) is back again, having hitched her wagon to another racer. Delaney and Belgetti are joined by tragedy and…well, there’s not much ‘and’, just the glimmers of the love story Sturges wanted. The rest is just racing, and it’s on the track that Le Mans excels with some terrific footage.

Whatever else you might think - and critics hated it - Le Mans does have what is undoubtedly some of the finest racing footage captured on film. It puts the viewer right in the centre of the action, particularly in the pivotal crash sequence which is beautifully staged and edited, breathtaking in its violence, and sheer daring; remember folks - no CGI. But, ultimately, it’s not enough. The action is exciting only in a superficial way; we simply don’t really care whether Michael wins, gets the girl, or dies in the attempt. It’s somehow a little too dry and dusty, like old bones. Not enough meat, too little flesh.

What is fascinating however, is that, today some 35 years after seeing it for the first time, it can be viewed as a wonderful period piece, a beautiful snapshot of time and place. With it’s shots of the crowds - watching, waiting, under canvas in the forests - it’s a time capsule, from the fashions and hairstyles, to the brutish cars, even the people look different, inhabitants of a very different planet. Pale and wan, badly fed, badly groomed; 36 years ago and it might as well be a 100.

It easily conjures smells of spilt petrol and greasy lukewarm burgers, hot rubber, cold petit déjeuner, summer rain and the dregs of last night’s Bordeaux glugged as a morning pick me up. It’s this documentary aspect of Le Mans that means, for me at least, that the film is getting to be a better viewing experience with age.

In both R1 and R2, Le Mans comes barebones, but it does have the benefit of a very nice transfer by Paramount, with good strong, vibrant colours and decent sound. Not up to the standard of Warners recent Grand Prix, but still acceptable.

What is the point of this story?
What information pertains?
The thought that life could be better
Is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.

Paul Simon

Junior Bonner (1972) 

Junior Bonner also failed to set the box office on fire, but having almost worked with McQueen on The Cincinnati Kid, Sam Peckinpah - fired from that film after only a few days - and Steve set to work together again, ultimately coming up with a film that stands today as amongst the best in both their filmographies. In fact, they enjoyed the experience that much that it was a matter of months before they were both back before the cameras again in a film that put both of their careers back on track. Huzzah!

Ironically one of the reasons Junior Bonner failed at the box office was that it was marketed as some kind of all-action cowboy flick, and failed signally to meet those expectations. While The Getaway, which satisfied both wrong-headed critics and audiences that here was a ‘typical’ outing from ‘Bloody Sam’, was the huge hit that both Sam and Steve needed. But it was far from being representative of Peckinpah, who knew what was was needed of him and completed the film with a consummate professionalism. You want action flick? You got it…

It was the artist, not just the artisan, then that chaired Junior Bonner, getting the most out of a slight story and the most out of Steve McQueen, one of the most charismatic stars of the past half century, and a man who could dictate to the camera a page of dialogue with a single look.

The film starts with fading rodeo star Junior ‘JR’ Bonner, riding old Sunshine; never was there more contrarily named animal. He’s a Herculian black bull from Hell, two tons of snorting, bucking, stomping, plain ornery beefsteak. JR straps himself to the back of this beast, his bête noir, and his job is to stay there for eight seconds. Eight long seconds.

After picking himself up out of the sawdust and nursing a couple of cracked ribs, JR decides that he’ll ride ol’ Sunshine again, at his home town Rodeo at Prescott, and he’ll beat him. Or to hell with it. Once back in town, JR’s appearance gradually brings the disparate Bonner clan back together one last time - while waiting in the ring is Sunshine, as mean and moody as ever.

This is a modern day western, but it’s suffused with that ‘end of trail’ melancholy that Peckinpah did so well. McQueen is perfection itself as JR, grimacing as he straps up those ribs, walking, shoulders slumping, back to a battered old convertible that, like its owner, has seen better days.

We know exactly the territory we’re in within minutes of the opening, JR pitching up at his dad’s tar-paper shack, finding it abandoned, along with the framed photos of ‘Ace’ Bonner’s own glory rodeo days. Both Ace and his boy are men out of their time, a fact underlined when Peckinpah has JR staring down a gigantic earth mover on the road outside, and having to back down in the face of this, this…progress. As he tries to find his way out of a maze of construction workers and machinery, JR looks on helplessly as Ace’s home is ripped apart and flattened by predatory ‘dozers, seeming for all the world like jackals at the carcass of a lion.

We never find out exactly why Ace (Robert Preston), and Ellie (the excellent Ida Lupino) parted; we don’t need to. Ace has always been a dreamer, a ‘good times just around the corner’ guy, who can’t keep a dollar, or his dick, in his jeans. He needs just one more grubstake, enough to get him to Australia where the streets are awash with gold just dying to leap out of the dusty earth into his hands. One last dream.

Ace’s youngest son, Curly Bonner (Joe Don Baker) and his joyless, pinched-up shrew of a wife, sure won’t be the ones to provide it. They slapped $15,000 into Ace’s sweaty hands for his dirty little spread, not the full market value, but then, Ace was in debt up to his bandana and Curly was on hand with the greenbacks. No more from Curly; thanks to that little deal, he’s heavy into real estate and as he tells JR, he’s on his way to his first million ‘while you’re still trying to get to eight seconds.’

Ace tries to stick JR for the dough; Junior has to tell daddy he’s ‘busted’. That first meeting in God knows how long between father and son is beautifully done; Ace signs himself out of the local hospital, steals JR’s horse to join the Rodeo parade through Main Street, and JR catches up with him. They gallop through the parade, whoopin’ and hollerin’, Sam editing the scene with the touch of a master, before he gets them to the railroad station - father and son.

Curly might be like his mom, intelligent, ambitious, but the apple that is JR didn’t fall far from the tree that is Ace. Peckinpah has them split, figuratively, and literally by the tracks, when Ace realises his last chance has been lost. Wordlessly, he draws them back together as Ace sees in JR what he once was, and Junior sees what’s coming up for him.

If elegiac westerns are largely about decay and death, and how we cope with those twin inevitable, inexorable shadows, then Junior Bonner deals with them on two levels. JR is not a ‘has been’, he’s a ‘never really was’, and he’s got one last chance to prove to nobody other than himself that he’s still capable of looking the world right in the eye and spitting in it. He’s at ‘that’ age, not that old, not that young, it’s all just a state of mind.

Ace, with 20 or so years on his kid, has the same dream, that vision of all old men, of riding into the sunset head held high. Somewhere out there Ace will make it. He knows it, all he needs is a chance. One last chance to make it big. And who can deny him that?

Peckinpah is said to have put much of himself into the film, and in particular his relationship with his own father. He mostly kept his own demons at bay throughout the shooting, only hitting the bottle towards the end of the schedule; he needed to be fully focused. It might sound as if it’s a heavy, somewhat miserable slice of cinema, and if I’ve given you, dear reader, that impression I apologise wholeheartedly for my ham-fisted prose. It is in fact a beautifully acted and directed piece, at it’s core a joyful film and tremendously life affirming. Above all, a very human story with a great big heart - Peckinpah does great ‘human’.

The rodeo scenes are choreographed and seamlessly edited with Peckinpah’s customary precision, the comedy punch-up has a Fordian charm, the whole has an air of romance, of genuine affection for the characters, for place and for family. Even the minor roles are wonderfully played, some of the good folks of Prescott getting in on the act (not to mention the Peckinpah offspring). On screen are ‘real’ people we can all identify with, even the grasping Curly and the delusional, but eternally charming Ace.

I’ve mentioned it before, but nowhere better than associated with this film to bring it up again; I believe that Sam Peckinpah was the true successor to John Ford. It’s a crying shame Hollywood didn’t appreciate the fact when he was alive.

If you’re considering buying Junior Bonner on DVD for goodness sake don’t purchase the UK R2 which is a pan and scan travesty. The R1, like all the ABC catalogue films presented by MGM, might be non-anamorphic, but it’s in OAR ’scope, quite a decent if not stellar transfer and has the benefit of a commentary track from the guys who shall be forever known as ‘The Peckinpah Posse’ - Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, moderated by Nick Redman…and very informative it is too.

*Oh, before I forget; those Paul Simon lyrics? Well, obviously they don’t feature in either of the films. But Hearts and Bones has been buzzing about my head recently, and, well, those words seem so right…let’s dedicate it to Ace Bonner shall we? 

Ants…and Pants August 22, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Action / Adventure / Thriller, Film & DVD Reviews , add a comment

First published in another form at The DVD Forums

‘Marabunta!’

Included in the CVs of director / producer team of Byron Haskin and George Pal are the sci-fi classics War of The Worlds and the strangley prescient but lesser known Conquest of Space. Sandwiched in between those two movies, in 1954, they came up with a peculiar hybrid of over-heated melodrama and creature feature, The Naked Jungle.

It’s 1901, and hard nosed plantation owner Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) has been hacking his way through the jungles of South America since he was 19 years old, building himself a cocoa empire reclaimed from the Amazon basin. Along the way, he’s forgotten a few things; no family, no real friends, no woman. Incredibly wealthy, he sets his brother the task of acquiring a wife; Leiningen is lucky in that he strikes it rich when flame-haired beauty Joanna Leiningen (they married by proxy), played by Eleanor Parker, arrives from up river to pop his cherry. Yes folks, he’s the only 30-odd year old, square jawed, broad shouldered virgin on the whole continent.

For more than an hour we dance around Leiningen’s virginity and ‘Madame’s’ (as Leiningen insists on calling her) attempts to take the starch out of this stuffed shirt and get him between the sheets. He wants kids, though he’d rather do without the whole nonsense of actually having sex, or even having a woman around, never mind a woman who talks back to this ‘master of all he surveys’. She wears skimpy nightclothes in front of him (the harlot!), he gets drunk and determines to do the deed but can’t when he finds out that - shock, horror - she’s not the virgin he expected. And there’s some laughable dialogue about the master’s brand new piano, which has never been played until the mistress arrives. As she tickles the ivories she tells him, eyebrows arched: “If you knew anything about music, you’d know that the best piano is one that’s been played.”C’mon Chuck - get your kecks off and bang a tune out of this old Joanna! I mean, there will be rumours…

After all that fluff, we finally get down to the meat of the tale. The local Commissioner (played by William Conrad) tells Leiningen that there’s something nasty in the jungle, something 20 miles long and two miles wild, unstoppable, brutal, and they’d all better get the hell out of the way. Of course, Chuck, and the woman he’s now slowly falling in love with, say they’ll make their stand against…Marabunta! The word is so memorable because of Conrad’s stentorian delivery; the future fat detective rolls the single word around his tongue like a vintage Merlot, gargles twice and spits it out, endowing each and every vowel with spine-tingling horror. We ain’t see it yet, but we clearly ain’t gonna like it…oh, goody!

Alright, alright, after all the dark mutterings, we are in fact talking an army of soldier ants; I expected Haskin, a master special effects technician, to give us the works, but sadly what looked so ’special’ to me 40 or so years ago, now looks rather feeble, and, worse, feeble possibly even to contemporary audiences. However, the battle between Leiningen and the lethal, flesh-stripping army should have occupied more of the films 95 minute running time, but it doesn’t. And as exciting as the all too brief denouement is, it’s all too predictable. There’s a scene, by the way, where Chuck rides to high ground to get his first view of the vast ant army. He takes quite a small eyeglass and scans the horizon…and the camera suddenly switches to a view of ants which are plainly a foot or so from the lens. For Father Ted, fans it’s a familiar reference from the first episode; and, still in Craggy Island mode, no Chuck, these are small and those are far away… It’s also worth noting that this is one of the films that Paramount, encouraged by the CIA, made sure showed Americans treatment of natives was seen in a good light (See here).

As films go, not very special, and even as homicidal ant films go (a genre that is, I accept, rather limited), it holds out a promise it simply fails to keep. Give me Them! every time.

What is special about Paramount’s R1 release is the transfer. Filmed in three-strip Technicolor, they have got hold of almost pristine elements, given them a good wash and brush up and the results are quite superb. That Paramount would do this for such a relatively minor work is all to their credit; colours are strong, with only a very few shots being ever so slightly out of registration, contrast is excellent, and it has that Technicolor golden ‘glow’. It’s all nice and sharp and I couldn’t detect any intrusive edge enhancement. The English mono soundtrack is excellent too.

Paramount has transferred this with the film matte opened up; 1954 was the year widescreen movies were launched proper, and several movies photographed in Academy (Shane probably the most famous) were cropped for showing in theatres so equipped, as the new format took off. The obvious difference here is that The Naked Jungle was plainly photgraphed with widescreen in mind; there’s plenty of headroom, allowing the film to be viewed either way, and it looks quite comfortable (unlike Shane which was shown at 1.66:1 - it wasn’t filmed for such, and I don’t think it works at all) when seen in a 1.85:1 (or thereabouts) ratio.

Discs this good are a joy to behold and, sometimes, actually make up for deficiencies in the narrative; they do enable you to better enter the fantasy world of cinema - my hat is off to film restorers whose work is as good as this.

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