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Square Eyes; Awesome Welles This Christmas… December 4, 2009

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film General, Square Eyes , 8 comments

Citizen Welles…

BBC FOUR IS TREATING US TO AN Orson Welles season over the Christmas holiday, featuring five of The Great Man’s best known films, a little screened BBC series from the ’50s, a welcome repeat of an excellent Arena ’80s documentary, and a brand new look at Welles’ post Hollywood career courtesy of leading ‘Wellesian’ Simon Callow.

A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.

Orson Welles

The schedule, as it stands now, is:

Friday, Dec.18, 19:30-19.45 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; A series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches. This is fascinating - the Beeb digging deep into its own archives for a series first aired in 1955 in six parts. I’ve never seen this so I’m grateful for this neat précis courtesy of IMDB: “This six-episode series, produced on a shoestring budget for the BBC, proves that above all else Orson Welles was a great storyteller. The camera cuts back and forth between close-ups of Welles and his charming sketches as he tells anecdotes ranging from the tragic (such as the case of a black U.S. serviceman who returned to the South after a tour in the Pacific, got into a dispute with a bus driver, and as a result was beaten blind by a policeman) to the hilarious (the varied reactions to the Mercury Theatre of the Air’s infamous radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds). This is as minimalist as television gets - just his drawings, his subtle facial expressions, and that wonderful, wry voice - and it’s riveting; a great showcase of Welles’s talent, wit, and charisma.”

What is a little odd is that, thus far, BBC4 only appear to be showing five of the six parts, if indeed that is what we’re getting. Detail so far is scant - let’s hope it isn’t just one or two of the ‘Sketchbooks’ repeated over.

Wednesday, Dec. 23, 00:10-00:25 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; Series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches.

Christmas Eve, Thursday, Dec. 24, 19.00-19:15 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; Series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches.

I have the terrible feeling that, because I am wearing a white beard and am sitting in the back of the theatre, you expect me to tell you the truth about something. These are the cheap seats, not Mount Sinai.

Orson Welles

Christmas Day, Friday, Dec. 25, 19.00-21:00 - Citizen Kane; Welles’ tour de force is weighed down by it consistently being voted the Best Film Ever Made, as if there could ever be such a thing. If you’re viewing for the first time, I can only beg you to view Orson Welles’s masterpiece as a piece of pure cinema and not an irrefutable icon that sits there Citizen Kanebegging to be shot at. Kane tells the story of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane in a series of stylish and stylised flashbacks. A reporter is intrigued by the dying Kane’s last word - rosebud - and sets out to find a new angle on the life of one of the most powerful men in America. Nine Oscar nominations resulted in only one award for the wunderkind Welles - Best Screenplay - and was to serve as both a medal of honour and the millstone that would forever hang round his substantial neck. If you allow it, Welles astonishing, vibrant debut serves to dazzle still. Blindingly so.

Christmas Day, Friday, Dec. 25, 21:00-22:50 - Arena: The Orson Welles Story (Part 1); First of a fine two-part profile of Orson Welles, premiered on the BBC in 1982, looking at his life and career in theatre, radio and particularly film. With Jeanne Moreau, John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Wise, Charlton Heston, and a detailed interview with Welles himself. This part deals with his work up to Touch of Evil.

Christmas Day, Friday, Dec. 25, 22:50-24:00 - Journey Into Fear; A nightmarish tale of espionage and treachery in Istanbul, as an American arms dealer goes on the run from the Gestapo during the Second World War. Orson Welles, who acts the role of a corrupt chief of the Turkish secret police, wrote the script with co-star Joseph Cotten, and, while Mercury Theatre alumni Norman Foster is credited as director, it was Welles who oversaw the production, and also shared directorial responsibilities, dashing from the set of ‘Ambersons’ and back again. Adapted from a novel by Eric Ambler.

Boxing Day, Saturday, Dec. 26, 19.00-19:15 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; Series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches.

Boxing Day, Saturday, Dec. 26, 19.15-21:00 - The Third Man; Classic Graham Greene thriller set in a shattered and divided post-WW2 Vienna where American writer Holly Martin (Joseph Cotten) is invited by his friend Harry Lime (Welles), only to find that Lime is dead. However, all is not what it seems - a mysterious ‘third man’ was seen tending to the dying Lime. But who was he?

The Third Man

Carol Reed is the genius behind the camera on this occasion, Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, graciously allowing Welles to slip in the famous ‘cuckoo clock’ speech, obviously recognising a bloody good line when he hears it. Of all the films in this season, this is the one that bears the least imprimatur of the legendary producer, writer, director (and sherry salesman); but for all that, it’s one with which he is famously connected. It speaks volumes for Welles sheer star power, and Reed’s masterly handling of that star. Fabulously entertaining.

I do not suppose I shall be remembered for anything. But I don’t think about my work in those terms. It is just as vulgar to work for the sake of posterity as to work for the sake of money.

Orson Welles

Sunday, Dec. 27, 20.00-21:30 - The Magnificent Ambersons; Period drama telling the story of a wilful son of the proud Amberson family who destroys his mother’s hopes of marrying her first love - a recent widower. Refusing to move with the times, he not only causes his mother to suffer but also brings about his own financial ruin. Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, and famously edited in Welles absence (he was in Rio filming a never to be completed documentary) by Robert Wise, who, at the studio’s insistence, hacked an hour or so from Orson’s original cut. What’s left is wonderful, what could have been is tantalisingly missing, though if they can find the missing scenes from Metropolis, who knows what may turn up one day? I’m an eternal optimist. Warners have been threatening to release the film in the US for a couple of years now in a special edition home video set, blaming a search for the ‘best elements’ on the delay. If it ends up in their benighted ‘Archive’, Orson will haunt the grounds of Burbank, rattling old film cans and intoning ‘pressed discs you bastaaaarrrrrds’ until those Brothers come to their senses.

Sunday, Dec. 27, 21.30-22:30 (repeated at 1.45am) - Orson Welles Over Europe; When Orson Welles went into self-imposed exile in Europe, he first found stardom with The Third Man and then immersed himself in challenging films, television, theatre and bullfighting. Hello AmericansSimon Callow, author of two fantastic volumes of biography on Welles (we await the third), trails the complex actor-director in what promises to be an authoritative and entertaining new documentary. Ideal companion piece to the Arena documentary that follows.

Sunday, Dec. 27, 23.00-23:55 - Arena: The Orson Welles Story (Part 2); Second of the two-part profile of Orson Welles, looking at films including The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story and F for Fake and discussing his many unfinished projects, including The Other Side of the Wind (which Peter Bogdanovich is currently completing on his one time house guest’s behalf) and Don Quixote.

Sunday, Dec. 27, 23.55-1:30 - The Stranger; In which a federal agent is assigned to track down an escaped Nazi war criminal, and eventually finds him in a small Connecticut village. Welles stars with Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young, yet another of his movies missing up to half an hour of footage (thought to have been destroyed) and said to be one of Orson’s least favourites - nevertheless, a very watchable noir-ish thriller.

Monday, Dec. 28, 1.30-1:45 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; The last in the series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches.

You shouldn’t have interfered, Number 6. You’ll pay for this… September 29, 2009

Posted 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.

The Prisoner on Blu-ray pack shot

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 Prisoner on Blu-ray pack shot

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, 2009

Posted 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.

Square Eyes; Citizen Kubrick… July 7, 2008

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Square Eyes , 4 comments

Fans of the film genius, the reclusive, the enigmatic, the elusive unto death (and beyond) Stanley Kubrick are in for a treat with the UK digital channel More4’s screening of a special season of films and documentaries dedicated to the great man, during the second half of July.

As well as screenings of seven of Kubrick’s movies (Barry Lyndon, Paths of Glory, Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Killer’s Kiss, The Killing & The Shining) the season features two rarely seen early career short documentaries; Day of The Fight (1951) and from the same year Flying Padre.

The season also includes a brand new documentary, part of C4’s True Stories strand; Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes, plus four ‘bitesize’ Kubrick shorts, Stanley Kubrick’s Small Boxes, presumably culled from the same filming sessions as their longer parent, on both Channel 4 and More 4, in the 3 Minute Wonder slot.

To promote the season Channel 4 has filmed a quite astounding promo, which was recently reported in The Guardian newspaper thus:

Channel 4 has painstakingly recreated the set of Stanley Kubrick horror film The Shining, complete with look-a-likes of the crew and cast members including Shelley Duvall, for a TV ad to promote a More 4 season of the director’s films.

The 65-second promotional spot has been filmed as a one-take tracking shot through the recreation of The Shining set.

Viewers get Kubrick’s point of view as he walks through the set, ending up in his director’s chair as the crew prepare to shoot the famous scene of Danny Torrance, the son of Duvall and Jack Nicholson’s characters, riding round and round the deserted corridors of the Overlook Hotel.

The promo, filmed as a single tracking shot with a cast of 55 actors, was meticulously researched to “remain as faithful as possible to the period in which it was shot and the culture of the British studio in the late 1970s”.

Channel 4 Creative Services, the broadcaster’s in-house creative resource, cast people who resembled Kubrick’s own crew including his script lady, assistant director and director of production, John Alcott, who also worked on films including 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange with the director.

Look-a-likes were also found for Duvall, Danny Lloyd, who played Danny Torrance, and the twin girls who appear fleetingly in the film.

Most of the equipment that appears in the promotional clip was actually used in the filming of The Shining.

Many of the props that appear, including the tricycle and Kubrick’s script, were produced for the promotional clip based on photos or sketches from the late director’s archives.

The spot, which was shot over two days at London’s Bray Studios, was filmed using a 25mm Cooke lens – a favourite of Kubrick’s.

The promo can be seen currently on C4 and More4, and on The Guardian website here.

The Citizen Kubrick season (a title More4 initially coined for the season, from Jon Ronson’s original Guardian article, but look to have dropped), starts on Monday July 14. The schedule:

3 Minute Wonder: Stanley Kubrick’s Small Boxes; 14 July, 11:50am - 11:55am, Channel 4. Also 14 July, 1:05pm - 1:10pm, More4. Think Kubrick - Showing as part of More 4’s Stanley Kubrick season, the first of four short films concerning the late director. Members of Kubrick’s audience relate their fondest memories of his films.

3 Minute Wonder: Stanley Kubrick’s Small Boxes; 14 July, 11:55am - 12:00pm, Channel 4. Also 15 July, 1:05pm - 1:10pm, More4. Showing as part of More4’s Stanley Kubrick season, the second of four short films concerning the late director. Inspired by an actual callsheet from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, this film reconstructs the production meeting that took place prior to the callsheet being issued.

True Stories: Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (2008); 15 July, 10:00pm - 11:05pm, More4. A biography of a remarkably talented man as seen though the rich collection of material he left behind. Stanley Kubrick’s films were landmark events – majestic, memorable and richly researched. But, as the years went by, the time between films grew longer and longer, and less and less was seen of the director. What on earth was he doing?

Two years after Kubrick’s death, Jon Ronson was invited to the director’s estate to explore the hundreds of boxes the legendary film director had collected during his decades at Childwick Manor in Hertfordshire. He’s been returning ever since, and the story of Kubrick and the archive, now housed at University of the Arts London, is revealed in this fascinating documentary.

Ronson asks: is it possible to get to understand such a man – and his extraordinary working methods – by looking through the hundreds of boxes he left behind?

Day of the Fight (1951): 15 July, 11.05pm, More4. Documentary short. A day in the life of a middleweight Irish boxer named Walter Cartier, particularly the day of his bout with black middleweight Bobby James.

3 Minute Wonder: Stanley Kubrick’s Small Boxes; 16 July, 1:05pm - 1:10pm, More4. Showing as part of More 4’s Stanley Kubrick season, the third of four short films concerning the late director. This film features a sequence of references to his most iconic works.

Barry Lyndon (1975); 16 July, 11pm, More4. Kubrick’s oeuvre was never more lavish, ravishing or brilliantly eccentric than in his 18th Century story of pugnacious Irish chancer Barry Lyndon, a man with a talent for money and appearances, but with a crippling lack of love in his heart.

Barry Lyndon was a box office flop on its first release. Perhaps after the spacey future pyschedelia of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the teen malcontent of A Clockwork Orange, this painterly adaptation of an obscure picaresque novel was a leap too far for contemporary audiences. Nevertheless, it’s a tour de force, with the director pushing the limits of film technology to realise his singular vision, developing new camera lenses to tell this 18th Century cautionary tale with only natural, available light.

3 Minute Wonder: Stanley Kubrick’s Small Boxes; 17 July, 1:05pm - 1:10pm, More4. Overlook - Showing as part of More4’s Stanley Kubrick season, the last of the four short films concerning the late director. An exploration of the ghostly continuity photos from The Shining.

Paths of Glory (1957); 17 July, 11:55am, More4. A story designed to make the blood boil: blameless French soldiers carry the can for their superiors’ mistakes after a botched WWI assault. A work of genius from Kubrick, with a brilliant performance from Kirk Douglas.

Paths Of Glory was the first time Stanley Kubrick got to work with a major star - and in the late 1950s, stars didn’t come any more major than Kirk Douglas. He championed this ‘hard to sell’ anti-war film to the Hollywood studios, and bankrolled the 28-year-old tyro director who, with his growing reputation, still had it all to prove in Hollywood. And with his indignant performance Douglas provides an emotional counterbalance to Kubrick’s chilly, conceptual style.

Flying Padre (1951); 18 July, 12.55pm, More4. Documentary short. Two days in the life of priest Father Fred Stadtmuller whose New Mexico parish is so large he can only spread goodness and light among his flock with the aid of a mono-plane.

Lolita (1962); 18 July, 9pm, More4. Kubrick’s controversial and deeply ironic black comedy stars James Mason as a middle aged professor obsessed with a precociously sexual minor. Adapted by Nabokov from his own novel
In filming a book derided at the time as paedophiliac pornography, Kubrick put both his artistic and commercial reputation on the line, but the result is a sophisticated and moving tragi-comedy riddled with queasy wit.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); 19 July, 1.30pm, More4. We know what the year 2001 looks like now, and it didn’t look much like Kubrick’s vision. But 2001: A Space Odyssey itself still looks immaculate. Spectacular, trailblazing and philosophical, it’s an undisputed masterpiece.

Kubrick, cinema’s chilliest genius, abandons conventional narrative here and presents a succession of beautifully-composed sketches on the theme of evolution, death and rebirth linked by the mystical presence of a large black monolith.

Killer’s Kiss (1955); 21 July, 11.30pm, More4. Stanley Kubrick’s stylish second feature, shot on a shoestring but a clear indication of the great things to come. Intricately plotted, it tells the story of a has-been boxer who falls for a beautiful broad with a violent boyfriend.

With three documentaries and one self-buried feature under his belt, Kubrick wrote, directed, co-produced and edited this film noir for just $75,000. The result might be primitive by the meticulous standards the director would later apply, but it remains an inventive evocation of time and place with some spectacularly sinister visual flourishes.

The Killing (1956); 23 July, 12.05am, More4. Tightly plotted heist-goes-wrong thriller with which established the reputation of legendary director Stanley Kubrick. Sterling Hayden stars as an icy ex-con masterminding a robbery at a race track. His meticulous plan is to create a distraction by shooting the favourite horse during a race, muscle into the course’s counting house and flee with the wedge before you can say “and they’re under starter’s orders.”

The Shining (1980); 25 July, 9pm, More4. Stanley Kubrick’s atmospheric adaptation of a Stephen King tale. Jack Nicholson stars, in maniacal, terrifying form in Stanley Kubrick’s Gothic chiller. Aspiring-writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson) accepts a job as a caretaker at the Overlook Hotel during an icy Oregon winter so he can write his book. But the hotel has a macabre history that soon begins to worm its way into the present through the medium of his psychic son, Danny.

There are some reports of More4 also screening the 1953 documentary The Seafarers, Kubrick’s first colour feature which for 40 years was thought lost, but sadly this appears to have been removed from the More4 schedules. Keep your eyes open just in case there’s a change of heart and it is in fact screened on the night of Tuesday, July 15.

Stanley Kubrick’s archive is now housed at the University of the Arts London.

Square Eyes; Two More Short Film Seasons From The Beeb… June 26, 2008

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Square Eyes , 8 comments

Following up the Westerns Weekend and the British B Movies Week (more of a long weekend, I suppose, than a week, but let’s not nitpick), BBC 4 continues its summer films season with two more helpings.

This weekend the digital channel plumps for a Courtroom Dramas Weekend, the three - count ‘em - movie showings tethered together with another 90 minute documentary Strictly Courtroom; after Rich Hall’s invigorating look at the western and Matthew Sweet’s entertaining and informative look at the cheap and cheerful, it looks as if we could be in for something a little more mundane with the choice of actor Martin Shaw to present.

Nothing against Mr Shaw per se; I think he’s a fine thesp, but I’ve got a sneaking feeling that he’s been chosen less for his expertise and enthusiasm and more for the fact that he’s TV’s Judge John Deed. Still, you never know; as I discovered with Hall’s How The West Was Lost, these things should not necessarily be prejudged - and some of the interviewees look interesting. The blurb:

Actor Martin Shaw narrates a documentary which looks at how trials have been portrayed on the silver screen in the past century, from 12 Angry Men and Alfred Hitchcock’s [sic] Anatomy of A Murder to A Few Good Men and George Clooney’s Michael Clayton. Contributors include Geoffrey Robertson QC, OJ Simpson’s defence lawyer Alan Dershowitz, author and advocate Scott Turow and death row campaigner Clive Stafford Smith.

The blurb writer has clearly got his directors in a twist; let’s hope the error didn’t originate with Beeb. Alas poor Otto…

The season gets under way this Saturday, June 28, at 7.00pm with Stanley Kramer’s 1960 Oscar-nominated screen adaptation of the notorious 1925 Tennessee ‘Monkey Trial’, Inherit The Wind, in which a young teacher stood accused of violating state law by teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. A quite fabulous cast including Fredric March, Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly, Florence Eldridge, Dick York, Donna Anderson and Harry Morgan.

On Sunday Sidney J. Furie’s 1962 courtroom drama The Boys, shown last summer as part of the Beeb’s Festival of British Film, gets another airing. Four youths are accused of murdering a nightwatchman. The defence attempts to persuade the jury that the boys are guilty of a crime of passion and should not be executed - stars Richard Todd, Robert Morley, Felix Alymer, Dudley Sutton, Ronald Lacey & Tony Garnett.

Finally, on Monday night is Sidney Lumet’s wonderful The Verdict, from 1982, with Paul Newman (giving one of his finest performances), James Mason, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden and Milo O’Shea. An ambulance-chasing lawyer attempts to regain some integrity from one final case - a medical malpractice suit for a woman who lies in a coma. With his career fading, he has turned to drink for solace and finds himself in court facing one of the toughest lawyers in the country. An adaptation of Barry Reed’s novel, scripted by David Mamet.

As usual, Strictly Courtroom gets several outings; full details here.

The following weekend, and starting Saturday July 5, it’s British War Films - at 9.00pm look out for the documentary War Stories: Uncovering forgotten gems like Frieda and revisiting classics like Ice Cold in Alex, an exploration into how war films have changed with the times. They were a tool of government propaganda during WW2, and while the blockbusters of the1950s were part of national nostalgia, today they have been rediscovered and become celebrated icons of British culture.

No news on the presenter as yet, and it will, again, get several showings. Films in the season are:

We Dive at Dawn (kicking off the season on Saturday, July 5 at 7.30pm). Anthony Asquith’s World War II drama about a mission to hunt and destroy a dangerous German battleship in the Baltic which goes wrong when the British submarine runs short on fuel. Stars John Mills and Eric Portman.

The First of The Few (Saturday, July 5 at 10.35pm). Offered contracts and any number of enticing star roles after Gone with the Wind, Leslie Howard chose to leave Hollywood and return to England to make films designed to boost wartime morale. Here, he directs and stars as visionary aircraft designer R.J. Mitchell, the father of the Spitfire. The fine cast includes Rosamund John as his wife and David Niven as the test pilot, while William Walton’s score sums up an entire era of flying pictures. It was Howard’s final screen performance: his plane was shot down in 1943 on a mission that immediately became shrouded in mystery.

Ill Met By Moonlight (Sunday, July 6, 9.00pm). Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1958 war movie. I quote the Radio Times:Dirk Bogarde is on stirring form as a British officer given the task of working with the partisans in occupied Crete to kidnap the local German commander (Marius Goring), in a tale loosely based on a real operation in the Second World War. Fine acting, rugged scenery and a trenchant score all add to the film’s attractions. The Americans gave it the more prosaic title of Night Ambush.

Not my favourite P&P, but I’ve said it before, even second rate Powell & Pressburger is worth a watch. The RT insist, by the way, that Powell & Pressburger were not famed for their war films. Oh, really..?

Overlord (Monday, July 7, 10.00pm). Made over a period of several years and finally released in 1975; stars Brian Stirner, Davyd Harries, Nicholas Ball and Julie Neesam. The RT doesn’t reckon much to Stuart Cooper’s labour of love: Made with the co-operation of the Imperial War Museum, this account of the D-Day landings attempts to convey the grim reality of the soldier’s lot by combining newsreel footage with dramatic re-enactments. Unfortunately, too much time was spent rooting out clips and not enough on the script, which is a collection of clichéd ideas and utterances. Director Stuart Cooper - who, as an actor, played one of the original Dirty Dozen in the wartime blockbuster of the same name - seems content to allow his cast to remain inanimate, while his presentation of the combat sequences comes dangerously close to suggesting war may be hell, but is also grotesquely beautiful. A bold venture, but poorly executed.

Or as Criterion state: Seamlessly interweaving archival war footage and a fictional narrative, Stuart Cooper’s immersive account of one twenty-year-old’s journey from basic training to the front lines of D-day brings all the terrors and isolation of war to life with jolting authenticity. Overlord, impressionistically shot by Stanley Kubrick’s longtime cinematographer John Alcott, is both a document of World War II and a dreamlike meditation on man’s smallness in a large, incomprehensible machine.

All I can say is that if you haven’t seen it before, make an effort to do so; the Radio Times reviewer may have a point, but it is indeed a bold venture, and it is at times utterly gorgeous, with a climax that’s long telegraphed but still packs a wallop. It’s rarely shown on terrestrial TV; it’s highly recommended, if you not possess either the fine R1 Criterion or R2 Metrodome DVD sets. On that basis alone Overlord must not be dismissed.

The British War Films Weekend is yet to show on the BBC 4 website, but a quick search in a few days will bring you up the full schedule no doubt, should you wish to prepare your recorders.

How The West Was Hijacked? June 23, 2008

Posted 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.

James Coburn and Rod Steiger - Duck You Sucker

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.

Duck You Sucker

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.

Gui la testa

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…

Square Eyes; British B Movie Week on BBC 4 June 16, 2008

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Square Eyes , 4 comments

BBC 4 follows up last week’s Westerns Weekend with British B Movie Week starting next Saturday, June 21, featuring a number of movies rarely aired on British television and none of them available on DVD, to my knowledge, this side of The Pond.

Author and film historian Matthew Sweet introduces the films and hosts a new 90-minute documentary Truly, Madly, Cheaply reappraising over half a century of British B movies, from John Mills on the wrong end of a whipping in The Lash through to the giant gorilla Konga running amok in Croydon. Sweet argues that the cheapness of these films, unlike the A film, ensured they often portrayed Britain as it really was, even when (as in the case of 1970s sex movies) that wasn’t necessarily a nice place to be. Features interviews with the people behind the films including Sir John Mortimer, Patricia Laffan and Michael Winner. Truly, Madly, Cheaply will be shown several times during the short season.

Amongst the films being aired are quota-quickies from Michael Powell and Bernard Vorhaus, through to a cheap and cheerful Hammer style 70s zombie-bikers flick. They are:

The Last Journey; John Brahm and Bernard Vorhaus co-directed this 1936 portmanteau thriller. A train driver driven mad with jealousy after discovering his wife’s affair, embarks on his last journey before he retires. Should be the BBC’s restored and remastered version from National Film and Television Archive materials. Kicking off the week at 7.30pm on June 21.
Lazybones; Michael Powell’s 1935 65-minute romantic comedy, made at Twickenham Film Studios. Ian Hunter is cast as Sir Reginald Ford, an extremely idle baronet who, along with his titled father, is also completely penniless. Seeking a solution to his lack of solvency, Ford pursues American heiress Kitty McCarthy (Claire Luce)… The plot is predictable, but the film nevertheless displays the first hints of Powell’s inimitable style.

Psychomania; Don Sharp’s 1973 kitchy horror. The members of The Living Dead gang commit suicide believing they will become immortal, but things don’t turn out quite as they expect. Nicky Henson has a hoot as the Angel from Hell, and he is superbly supported by Beryl Reid as his devil-worshipping mum and George Sanders (alternately fighting off yawns, knowing winks and blushes) as her ghoulish butler. This British horror cheapie ends up so ridiculous, it works. It was available on DVD in R1 courtesy of Image Entertainment, sadly now OOP, but a couple of places are still listing a very cheap (so probably nasty) 4:3 version from Geneon / Pioneer.
The Black Rider; Wolf Rilla directs this 1954 ‘boys own’ crime thriller. A reporter (Jimmy Hanley) investigating sightings of a strange hooded figure on a motorbike is led to a castle hideout for a group of smugglers. And they would have got away with it but for that pesky father of the former ’Magpie’ presenter…
Cover Girl Killer; another crime thriller, from Terry Bishop (1959). A series of murders of magazine cover-girls baffles the police. Starring Hary H Corbett in a rare straight role and Felicity Young.
Marilyn; known as Roadhouse Girl in the US, Wolf Rilla in the chair again for this pretty entertaining 1953 quickie. In a fit of jealousy over his wife (Sandra Dorne), a garage owner (Leslie Dwyer) gets into a fight with an employee (Maxwell Reed).

Full details available on the BBC 4 website here.

Square Eyes; Showing Very Soon… June 13, 2008

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Square Eyes , add a comment

For digitally equipped UK based telly viewers, there’s a feast of westerns on BBC 4 this weekend that you might like to take note of.

As well as two-thirds of the ‘Cavalry Trilogy’ and two of the very finest John Ford / John Wayne collaborations (as I write that, I’m mindful that Ford would bristle at the suggestion…) - Fort Apache, essentially Ford’s coruscating take on Custer and featuring some breathtaking monochrome cinematography courtesy of Archie Stout, plus the Technicolor splendour (the Beeb print allowing) of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon - BBC 4 is showing Ford’s brilliantly realised Wagon Master, just released by Universal in the UK, with a fair to middling transfer, but unavailable in R1.

Kicking off the short season, at 7.30pm on Saturday June 14 is Sam Fuller’s superb Run of The Arrow, as yet sadly unavailable on DVD either side of The Pond, with Rod Steiger somehow managing to spellbind despite another of his ’Oirish’ accents that are as authentic as Guinness brewed in Cleveland. Alex Cox’s 2007 comedy drama Searchers 2.0 gets its first terrestrial telly outing on Monday, June 16, and you’ll also find a smattering of documentaries - a repeat for Reputations: John Wayne, a look at the life and times of The Duke, but I quake a little at the prospect of the newly minted How the West Was Lost in which: “…Comedian Rich Hall looks at classic westerns from Buffalo Bill to Unforgiven, and sees their influence on films such as Reservoir Dogs and Taxi Driver.”

Hey; western fandom is a serious business…full details of the Westerns Weekend on the BBC 4 website here.

A Peckinpah Idolator Writes… September 19, 2007

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , 9 comments

I was recently accused of being a Sam Peckinpah ‘idolator’. Stone me; accused. Like…this is a bad thing?

Being the internet, it’s not unknown for complete strangers to waft up to you and make what appear to be the most bizarre assertions, when in fact they’re only gently yanking your chain. Something I’m very well aware of myself; not being the most assiduous user of the ubiquitous ’smiley’ (the Luddite in me thinks the English language is a robust enough form of communication to illuminate without illustrations), my sometimes misplaced shafts of wit can be - have been - mistaken for declarations of war.

However, there was no doubt that this was an ‘accusation’, like being outed as a criminal - ‘YOU BOY! You’re a Peckinpah Fan!! SEIZE HIM!’ -  or having a small, er, member - ‘Look at the size of your tiny Peckinpah! HAHAHAHA’ - and, to me, quite baffling. Akin to being denounced as a lover of battered cod ’n chips out of the paper, Edward Elgar, The Beatles, dandelion and burdock, the sound of waves crashing on rocks and the smell of my wife’s skin. All perfectly scrumptious things, every single one of them guaranteed to press my buttons - guilty on all counts.

But it’s a puzzle. I mean, how can one not admire one of the cinematic giants of the last century? I’ll stand up and be counted, yelling to anyone within hearing: ‘I AM a Peckinpah idolator!’ It would make a perfectly good t-shirt slogan, well, that or ‘Peckinpah fans do it in slo-mo…’

So, yes; let’s go - Sam was, and remains, ’The Man’. In my (and many, many, others) opinion. And there’s the nub, for, gentle reader, I coudn’t give a trio of flying plaster ducks what anyone else thinks. You can’t see it? What’s all the fuss? You have my deepest sympathy, but, please, step away from the blog. Quickly now. Shoo.

Sam Peckinpah’s star shone relatively briefly, but oh so very brightly. In little more than a bare handful of films he served up tales that worked on many levels. Rattling good narratives, wonderfully photographed and edited, within which, should you choose to look, can be found the paradoxical nature of human beings, their perverse desires and emotions, ‘good’ co-existing on the same plain as ‘bad’. In truth, what we’re seeing is Peckinpah’s view of the world and his own bruised relationships with friends, colleagues, family, the women he treated so badly; the director stripped bare. It’s a sometimes romantic, sometimes charming or brutal, odd times shockingly painful auteurism, but Peckinpah’s great films are never less than fascinating and tremendously rewarding, even if the mirror that is thrust into our face makes us squirm and sweat. Finding out precisely why is what makes ‘Bloody Sam’ so bloody marvellous.

He was a genius with dialogue, could transform a banal sow’s ear of a script into a silk purse. His endless hours in the cutting room, sculpting down 1000s and 1000s of feet of film, trimming by a single frame here and there, produced unforgettable adrenaline fuelled, dizzying scenes, beautiful images that excite, enthrall and stir our emotions. That is, when he wasn’t mean drunk or drug addled, busy inflicting a death by a thousand cuts on that wiry, increasingly frail, body, or pushing everyone that mattered away from him. Some mistake his work for nihilism; his end makes the error understandable, but the great films are so damned…human.

Yes, I do kneel in awe; Ride The High Country, The Wild Bunch, Cross of Iron, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (to name but a few of the few) are all works to astonish. I haven’t seen a film that bears him name that doesn’t have at least something to commend it, even such late autumnal frippery as Convoy. Well, that is, until now…

The Deadly Companions

This being a painful experience, I’ll try to keep this brief, so I’ll begin by summing up Sam Peckinpah’s first feature; what should have been a dazzling debut on the Hollywood stage, is a God-awful mess. Badly written, badly acted, clumsily directed and edited, the only fascination is waiting for some spark, some small sign, that this is a Peckinpah film. It never really comes. The Deadly Companions is so risible, it might have ended Sam’s career right there and then.

The saving grace is that this isn’t a Sam Peckinpah film…

The Deadly Companions

Set in the late 1860s, ‘Yellowleg’ (Brian Keith), a former sergeant in the Union army, takes up with a couple of villains - Turk (Chill Wills) and Billy (Steve Cochran) - and together they plan a bank robbery. In a shoot-out, Yellowleg accidentally kills Mead (Billy Vaughan), the nine-year-old son of dance-hall hostess Kit Tilden (Maureen O’Hara). Riddled with guilt, Yellowleg seeks redemption by escorting the woman through Apache territory to the long abandoned gravesite of Kit’s husband, to bury her son next to him.

Now, come on; this is deep into Peckinpah territory (Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada provides the obvious echo), and all the elements are in place - children playing in the street, the preacher in the saloon (Strother Martin), Wills bad, mad ’Turk’ (a version of the character fleshed out properly in Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid), betrayal, loss, remorse. None of it comes together; everyone seems to be acting in a different film. Only Keith, familiar with his director from their work together on television, appears to find anywhere near the right rhythm.

The characters, burdoned with clumsy dialogue, seem to be barely sketched in; Wills and Keith are occasionally interesting, but nothing is carried through to a proper conclusion. Poor Steve Cochran, resplendent in a slightly bizarre, pristine, gunfighter’s garb, is simply surplus to requirements and Lord knows what O’Hara is supposed to be. Kit is clearly meant to be a woman forced to do anything to make ends meet, and thus a town pariah; like Yellowleg, she’s an outsider. But dressed to the nines in immaculate make-up, even in the most harrowing circumstances, there’s not a hint of that in O’Hara’s performance, it’s all so…bland; a jigsaw puzzle where none of the pieces fit.

I didn’t care about Kit’s loss, about whether they’d make it or not, about who was going to live and who was going to die, there was no suspension of belief. What was fascinating was the fact I was watching A Very Poor Film bearing the name of A Very Great Director…and thus an absolute must see for Peckinpah completists.

The direction is barely adequate, the odd flash, nothing more, no-one paying any great attention to the continuity, the cutaways or editing. The frankly irritating score by Marlin Skiles would have disgraced a TV movie, the whole topped and tailed by la O’Hara warbling some pastiche of a melancholy ‘oirish’ ballad, penned by Skiles and the multi-talented ’Charles B. FitzSimons’.

Oh, yes. Not a Peckinpah film.

Rewind. Having given Sam an ultimatum to soften his approach on his hard-hitting, critically acclaimed television series The Westerner - and Sam being Sam, told them where to shove it - the next big step for Peckinpah was into film. His star in The Westerner, Brian Keith, had just had a huge hit with the sugary pap that was The Parent Trap with Maureen O’Hara and was offered the lead role in what was a pet project of O’Hara and her producer brother Charles FitzSimons.

Keith, who saw a ‘pretty bad’ script, was in; providing Sam Peckinpah was sat in the director’s chair. Sam would fix The Deadly Companions, no problem; it was the sort of challenge he relished.

Except. FitzSimons had laboured three years on that piece of crap, with the author of the novel ‘The Deadly Companions’ A.S. Fleischman, and believed that the film was destined for greatness. He had to take Peckinpah to get Keith, but that didn’t mean he had to use him. When Sam turned up with 20 pages of rewrites, according to David Weddle, author of Sam Peckinpah; If They Move Kill ‘Em, FitzSimons promptly stuffed them in the waste bin and told the stunned director that he’d been hired to direct, not write. If only.

The film has pretensions that it can’t hope to fulfill given the circumstances. Shot in Panavision - with a handful of glorious shots cobbled together by Sam and his veteran cinematographer Bill Clothier - the credits proclaim ‘Filmed in it’s entirity in THE STATE OF ARIZONA and at the town of OLD TUCSON’. Even the use of Clothier, who had worked with Ford, is a statement of sorts.

FitzSimons and O’Hara clearly wanted ‘greatness’ on the cheap. Their budget was a miserly $530,000, their schedule a bare 21 days. FitzSimons stood over Peckinpah every one of those days, ordering him, like a callow rookie, how to stage and shoot scenes. He also forbade - forbade - Peckinpah from giving his sister direction. Having been ordered about the set by Ford, O’Hara clearly felt herself too grand to submit to entreaties from this movie whelp.

Naturally, in her tedious autobiography, ‘Tis Herself, Ms O’Hara has a rather different version of events, recalling that it was a ‘fiasco’ because Peckinpah hadn’t got a clue how to direct a movie. “He was oblivious to the fact that he was missing shots that were necessary to cut together a cohesive story in the editing room” says Maureen of one of cinema’s great editors, adding that ‘Charlie’ had to come in each day to tell him which reaction and cutaway shots were needed. The final film was ‘too artsy’ because Sam wouldn’t shoot the big action scene in which our merry band fight off those pesky injuns. Oh, if only he’d have listened to his leading lady and her producer brother, but obviously our debutant director just would not be told…

When shooting was over, FitzSimons kicked Sam out of the cutting room and edited this patchwork melodrama together himself. The Deadly Companions was quickly seen for what it was, dumped into a few flea-pits and promptly disappeared. It was subsequently reissued in the States on the back of Sam’s later hits as Trigger Happy. So much for ‘greatness’. I would have paid good money to see the look on the faces of O’Hara and FitzSimons when Ride The High Country came romping home.

Optimum’s UK R2 disc of The Deadly Companions has no extras, not even a trailer. But the transfer is really very good, colourful and true and there’s barely a mark to be seen in this anamorphic ’scope presentation. The mono English soundtrack (the only option) occasionally goes in and out of synchronisation; this could be a disc / player related problem, but I’m not completely positive, the problems (not huge) reoccuring in the same places on multiple viewings. There are no subtitles. The menus are backed by O’Hara belting out that incongruous theme song, which is truly annoying; she has a decent voice, but what were you thinking Charlie? 

Despite my very large reservations over the film, I’m really glad to have The Deadly Companions and to have seen it, at last, in it’s original aspect ratio.

All the more in view of what arrived in the post - thank you Dave - only a few days later…

The Westerner: Jeff

If The Deadly Companions gives the impression that Sam Peckinpah went on a directorial crash course between that and his next project, the sublime Ride The High Country, then watching the 30 minute gem that is Jeff, the first jaw-dropping episode of 13 he made for Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions of The Westerner, will quickly reassure that this visionary’s talent was already very firmly in place.

Let’s rewind again, a year or so before FitzSimons needed a patsy. Peckinpah had come off a successful run of TV’s The Rifleman, nevertheless slightly disillusioned; he wanted to fashion something grittier, something over which he had absolute control - writing, editing, dubbing, the works. Powell gave him that freedom and Sam came up with the goods - The Westerner. Thirteen half hour episodes, starring Brian Keith as the eponymous drifter ‘Dave Blassingame’, produced by the finest talent Peckinpah could assemble, and at the top of the pecking order with final say, honing scripts, cajoling, yelling at his team, encouraging them to aim higher - Sam himself.

Opening the series was Jeff, an astonishingly tight (like the rest, shot in a mere three days), intelligent and gripping half-hour playlet that comes on like a short movie rather than production line television. Directed, like five other The Westerner episodes, by Sam and co-written by him with Robert Heverley, Jeff was photographed by Lucien Ballard, in stark, high contrast monochrome, beginning a partnership that would continue through five feature films together.

Jeff opens with a shot of Warren Oates, one of a gaggle of boozy cowhands, getting liquored up in a dingy little fly-blown border bar. It’s Oates first time with Peckinpah, certainly not his last, and he doesn’t utter a coherent word. On The Westerner, Peckinpah would begin to assemble his stock company.

The Westerner; Jeff

The drunks have their lascivious eyes on Jeff (Diana Millay), the bar’s ‘hostess’, there to serve more than just drinks at the behest of owner Denny Lipp (wonderfully played by Geoffrey Toone). Denny is an English bare-knuckle fighter, still in good shape, and not averse to using his meaty fists on the girl. His girl.

Into this God-forsaken town, on a dead beat horse, rides a weary Dave Blassingame (Brian Keith). Dave is accosted by an older woman, the light of God in her mad eyes, a copy of the scriptures for sale in her outstretched hands. Blassingame sees a charity case, pays the woman, and stomps off purposefully into the bar with his dog ‘Brown’.

Blassingame has come into town to rescue Jeff, a girl he knows from way back, from her nightmare existence. However, Denny returns to the bar with his cronies. Of course they fight, but the kicker is that Denny has a desperate need for the girl who has become his slave. Bested and humiliated, he yells at Blassingame to take her and get out…but she simply can’t leave her pimp and this abusive relationship; ‘You want something that isn’t here’ Jeff tells Dave sadly ‘You want something that maybe never was.’

The director / writer, whose own marriage was fast falling apart, gives voice to his own disillusionment, his own bitterness. As Dave goes to leave and Jeff tries to console him, Blassingame tells her softly:  ‘Why should I worry about you?’ while at the same time, oh, so gently unknotting a ribbon from her hair and palming it into his heart’s pocket. Pure Peckinpah.

‘My dad used to tell me women must be God’s favourites ‘cos He made ‘em finer than anything else in creation’ Blassingame informs a triumphant Denny, ‘Well He must hate your guts for what you’ve done to ‘em.’ The fighter retorts that Dave is a sore loser. ‘I sure am’ says Blassingame quietly before laying out Denny with a haymaker, an empty victory.

As he leaves town, Dave once again meets the grubby religious woman (modelled certainly on Peckinpah’s mother, Fern) who asks him if he did in fact find salvation? Blassingame shakes his head; ‘And you?’ he replies. ‘I surely have’ she says smiling a lunatic smile, and behind her, scrawled on an adobe wall, we can see the words: ‘Tonight a soul is lost / He wonders the wide earth / But he finds only emptiness.’

The piece is a joy and must have hit 1960s America like a slap across the kisser; the dour, downbeat set, sawdust scattered on the floorboards, the vicious fistfights, the noir-like lighting, the glowering, deadly indian bartender, the whole seedy setting for this tale of romance, a love triangle. The script is finely tuned, the dialogue is clearly Peckinpah; the whole cast, but Denny’s preening pimp, dressed shabbily, their faces dirty, clothes torn and dusty, even - especially - the girl. And all, I’ll remind you, in just 30 blissful minutes, several years before Leone’s own western triumphs.

Weddle describes Jeff as a ‘minor masterpiece’, and it’s so far from Peckinpah’s work on The Deadly Companions that it’s impossible to reconcile Sam as author of both…but then, as described, he wasn’t.

Teddington’s Lost & Found, And A Tale Of Two TCMs… September 10, 2007

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, DVD News & Info, British Film , 3 comments

Visitors to the Filmjournal site will already know that the ever excellent clydefro is making a weekly effort to point you at the best of the output from the Stateside Turner Classic Movies cable station, so I hope he won’t mind me gently treading on his territory.

It’s in a good cause; I want to highlight a season of Warner Bros. First National films made at Teddington Studios. On Mondays September 17 and September 24, film fans in the U.S. will see a variety of very rare ’quota quickies’ from the British studio. And I quote:

The second installment of TCM’s remarkable “Lost and Found” series is comprised of films made at London’s famed Teddington Studios by Warner Bros. First National during the period 1932-1943. The series includes the U.S. premieres of two early works from director Michael Powell of The Red Shoes (1948) fame – the drama Something Always Happens (1934) starring Ian Hunter, and the crime thriller Crown vs. Stevens (1936) starring Beatrix Thompson. The other premieres are Crime Unlimited (1935) starring Lilli Palmer, Man of the Moment (1935) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., The Peterville Diamond (1942) starring Anne Crawford and The Dark Tower(1943) starring David Farrar…

Known as “quota quickies,” these films were shot at a fast pace on low budgets to meet the demands of the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, created by the United Kingdom Parliament to require a yearly quota of British-made movies and hopefully counter Hollywood’s dominance of the cinema world. (Never considered a success, the Act was modified over the years and repealed in 1960.) The films made at Teddington during its Warner Bros. era were strictly for the U.K. market, and most were never seen on this side of the Atlantic. Of more than 100 such films, only 33 are known to survive.

Many distinguished actors worked at Teddington during its Warner Bros. period; also represented in the TCM series are Michael Redgrave in Sons of the Sea (1941), Richard Greene in Flying Fortress (1942) and John Gielgud in The Prime Minster (1941). Among those films considered permanently lost, one of the most historically significant is 1934’s Murder in Monte Carlo, in which a young actor named Errol Flynn so impressed Warner Bros. executives that they dispatched him to Hollywood.

Teddington Studios has a long and interesting history dating to the 1880s. It became a production center for feature films in 1916 and was leased, then purchased, by Warner Bros. in the early 1930s. In 1944, during the dwindling days of World War II, a German rocket exploded on the property, causing extensive damage. Eventually reconstructed, the studios would become home to Thames Television, and today the facility remains an important media center.

The link above takes you to the TCM website and from there, the programme details, including full synopses of each film, plus video snippets. Good stuff. But the even better news is, apparently, ads being broadcast for the season say that the films will be transferred to DVD and are going to be available ‘before Christmas’. Be nice if it comes to pass.

While I’m here, I’ll use this as an opportunity to vent my spleen, in a very small way, at TCM’s U.K. output - a quick look at the website shows immediately that the Brit station is, by comparison, the American version’s impoverished cousin, both online and on air. Not only that, while there are some real gems to be found over here, they pale by comparison with the rich output of TCM U.S. For a start, it’s highly unlikely we’ll get a version of the Teddington Studios season broadcast in the country from which the films actually emanated. Bonkers.

TCM U.K.’s films are shown usually (but not always) in the correct aspect ratio, but never anamorphically (widescreen TVs being, apparently, the domain of those permanently tuned to Big Brother). We also have to put with showings broken up by ad breaks, something even Murdoch’s Sky Movies channels do not stoop to.

I get the distinct impression that, in close association with Warners savvy classic home entertainment arm, TCM U.S. is a station aimed at legions of film buffs and cineastes of all ages. While TCM U.K. - it’s myriad commercials zeroing in on those nearing the front of the queue in God’s waiting room - is targeted at those wrinkly and technophobic old film fans who think Brad Pitt was at the heart of the mighty conflict between Arthur Scargill and Maggie Thatcher. And who appreciate being prodded every half hour to get ready for the next big adventure in life. Which is death.

Don’t get me wrong, the fact that TCM U.K. exists at all is something of a triumph when you consider television’s overall output. But as you can see, it could be so much better…

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