Fire and Ice (1983)

Is there a more appropriate director for a live action version of Fire and Ice than Robert Rodriguez? One imagines him being perfect and, had he made this decision ten years ago, might have been able to offer the role of Teegra to Salma Hayek, perhaps anatomically ideal yet almost certain to refuse such an exploitative part now. Boo.

But back to 1983 we go, and a collaboration between Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta to produce the animated Fire and Ice. Made at a time when Conan and Beastmaster had proffered a certain, fleeting vogue onto the fantasy genre, in particular yarns involving barbarians, the relatively high budget Fire and Ice was an easy sell. With little of the literary baggage that came with Bakshi’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings, along with Farzetta’s artistic credentials, the project promised to be lean, action-based and tonally mature. As we now know, it was also something of a flop. Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for a cartoon aimed at the teenage market, certainly at a time when, in the west, animation was solely for children and couldn’t – however hard it tried – replicate the charms of Tanya Roberts or a young Arnold Schwarzenegger kicking ass and dressed in very little.

Not that commercial failure makes Fire and Ice a bad film. Its 81-minute running time cuts out much of the meaningless exposition, ponderous dialogue scenes and wallowing in its gorgeous artwork. Instead, we get a breathless affair that pitches us into the thick of the action and never lets up. As though screenwriters Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway agreed that the plot was so obvious and threadbare that there was just no point in indulging it, Fire and Ice’s characters are given the barest of back stories. After a standard issue narration about the evil witch Juliana and her son, Nekron, we open with a village being attacked by a glacier. It turns out Nekron is a sorcerer capable of moving vast quantities of snow and ice using only his mind. The lands overcome by his glacier are absorbed into the Ice empire, and only the ruler of Fire Keep, King Jarol, stands in his way.

Juliana dispatches evil-looking envoys to treat with Jarol, but this is a feint, because at the same time her sub-human pawns are kidnapping the king’s daughter, Teegra. This is to force Fire Keep into capitulating, but unfortunately for Juliana the Neanderthals are even stupider than they look and quickly they allow the princess to escape. Before too long, she’s teamed up with the film’s principal good guy, Larn (a barbarian whose village is destroyed by the glacier), who offers to return her to Fire Keep. But there’s more, including the irregular appearances of Darkwolf, a bemasked warrior who holds an unspoken grudge against Nekron and who turns up now and then to help Larn. These developments are thrown in amidst lengthy action sequences, made all the more fluid and realistic via Bakshi’s deployment of Rotascoping. This technique involved filming live actors performing the scenes before the artists drew each frame; it doesn’t always work, but the animation – in particular the fight scenes – is a cut above anything else made at the same time, though the ‘Making of’ documentary contains amusing footage of actors having at each other with axes in car parks. Essentially, it’s a primitive technique, adopting the same principles that would be repeated years later – at great expense and containing about the same level of charm – with Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf.

Such a fast-paced actioner has its downside. The characters are really little more than ciphers, either unambiguously good (Larn), evil (Nekron), or with hidden depths that the film never hints at revealing, as in the case of Darkwolf whose motivation for helping Larn is frustratingly unexplored. Sean Hannon, the actor playing Nekron, kept a diary during the film’s production and intimated that Darkwolf is nothing less than the sorceror’s father, now fuelled by bitter vengeance at the ruin his son his swathed across the land. But all this is cut from the final version, which makes Darkwolf both enigmatic and irritating.

Elsewhere, Fire and Ice’s cult status is surely mired in the fact it could be called Quest of the Underclad. It’s here that Frazetta’s influence over the production becomes clear. The fantasy genre owes a debt to Frazetta, though his typical image – an impossibly muscled warrior sitting on a pile of corpses beside his micro-kinied love interest – denied it much respectability before the Lord of the Rings films showed it didn’t have to be this way and brought it back into the mainstream. The great artist’s brushstrokes dominated the brief early eighties fantasy output, however, not to mention reminding this writer of a number of garish book covers that ensured certain novels could never be read in public. Larn wears little more than a loincloth in Fire and Ice. Fair enough. He’s a barbarian. But the realisation of Princess Teegra is staggering; the very image of voluptuousness who floats though the film in the tiniest of outfits and has a chest and backside the camera clearly loves, there’s something very wrong about her, coupled with a lingering sense of unfairness that it’s Jessica Rabbit who appears most prominently in the polls of sexiest cartoon babe. As it happens, she’s eye candy and so’s Larn (lamer than he looks) for much of the story, whilst it’s left to Darkwolf to keep the action moving.

Romance between Larn and Teegra is inevitable, though nothing much happens before their chaste kiss at Fire and Ice’s closing moments. Beforehand, there’s some delicious – and really quite daring – ambiguity about Nekron’s appetites. He certainly shows little interest in Teegra’s ample charms, but that isn’t true for the extremely welcoming sorceress who looks after her for a time… All this is hinted at rather than made clear, which is reasonable enough within Fire and Ice’s PG constraints and years before it could have gotten away with more.

A shame it didn’t do better on the whole. The animation is a marked improvement on Bakshi’s own Lord of the Rings and the brisk running time ensures Fire and Ice never outstays its welcome, even if cutting out the fat leaves very little for viewers to actually care about. Its relative obscurity makes the Rodriguez update something to look forward to, for shamelessly obvious reasons.

Posted on 20th September 2011
Under: Animation | 2 Comments »

The 39 Steps (1935)

Unforgivably, this was my first viewing of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. I’ve no excuse for such tardiness. My copy of Hitchcock: The British Years has been in the house for several years and I’ve watched just about everything on it. Failing that, there’s even a public domain version that I could watch on the web, for free, any time I wanted to! Perhaps the overly wordy scenes between Hannay and Miss Smith in the first ten minutes put me off persevering with it in the past, but I can now report that the deed has been done. I’ve watched all 83 minutes. I was royally entertained. The rash decision not to sit through it sooner was my loss because it’s a classic.

Some years ago, I read John Buchan’s novel, a boys’ own page-turner that gripped me and never let go throughout 103 breathless pages. The central story aside, much was lost in translation between book and screenplay, though happily Charles Bennett retained the narrative’s scenes of our hero being pursued across the Scottish countryside, the open air claustrophobia as both authorities and enemy agents close in. At a post-screening party held after the film’s premiere, Buchan declared it was actually better than his novel; he had no qualms about the action being shifted from 1914 to the mid-1930s, and why would he? The political situation wasn’t very different. Sinister forces from across the pond were spinning their webs before both world wars, making for a seamless adaptation that retained the novel’s spirit entirely.

Best of all, Hitchcock cranked up the pace in his film. Once Miss Smith dies, a knife in her back as she collapses on Hannay’s bed, The 39 Steps never lets up. Hannay’s learned enough from his guest to know that danger is afoot, that his life could be in as much peril as hers was, and that he needs to make it to a tiny village in Scotland (the only lead left to him). He boards the Flying Scotsman, but soon enough the train is being searched and he has to make a daring escape that involves hanging from his carriage as it hares across the Forth Bridge. From here, he’ll have a series of scrapes in Scotland, team up (unwillingly at first) with a beautiful young woman and find out exactly what the 39 Steps are in time to save himself from arrest.

The 39 Steps is from the early days of talkies, and in its early scenes seems rather staged. Yet this is a façade; as soon as Hannay goes on the run, the editing gets tighter and tighter. There’s barely time to pause for breath as he narrowly avoids doom again and again. A lot of the technical work we may take for granted now, but trick shots like the quick cut from Hannay in a car to its rear, the camera watching it pull away down a Highland B-Road must have been demanding to conjure up in 1935. It’s to everyone’s credit that they work, along with the studio-bound filming on which they recreated the Scottish moors, complete with imported sheep. Maybe their success is down to the film’s dynamics. Before too long, I was rooting hopelessly for Robert Donat’s charismatic Hannay, sharing his worried glances at newspaper headlines that exposed his (wrongful) guilt and hoping Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, to whom he’s handcuffed and therefore becomes a resisting partner/passenger in his escape bid) will end up believing him and allow the sexual chemistry between them to blossom. She does and it does, and getting that resolved turns out to matter more than uncovering the plot and clearing Hannay’s name.

Sub-plots occur throughout that make the script sparkle. The scene where our hero is mistaken for a speaker at a political meeting is hilarious, but the best moment comes when he asks to stay with a crofter and his wife for the night. As the avaricious man (played by Dad’s Army’s John Laurie) says grace over supper, Hannay shares looks with his young wife (Peggy Ashcroft), who realises he’s the ‘suspect’ on the front of the paper but plays along because she’s lonely and takes a shine to him, cue glances and crackling tension between the trio.

The 39 Steps has been called ‘the first Hitchcock picture’ before now, even though that’s blatantly untrue. Possibly it’s earned the credit because it represents the flowering of his talent, the end product to which his previous body of work was building. It introduces the MacGuffin as a plot device (the ‘secret’ is shared with the audience as a throwaway point at the very end of the film, explained by a dying man as chorus girls dance in the background to divert our attention; meanwhile, who the spies are and who they work for is never disclosed) and ushers in the classic Hitchcock narrative, that of an innocent man who is wrongly accused of some evil deed and goes on the run to elude capture and uncover the truth. It’s a winning formula that found its ultimate expression in North by Northwest, but The 39 Steps was the first to hit upon it, and is close to unbeatable. Its position of fourth in the BFI 100 British films of the Twentieth Century is fully justified.

Posted on 19th July 2011
Under: Hitchcock | No Comments »

‘Shaken, not Stirred’ - Live and Let Die (1973)

Live and Let Die posterFor Live and Let Die, they took the entirely usual step of trying to bribe Sean Connery back into Bond’s tuxedo. An unprecedented fee was offered, but for once the Scot turned them down and ensured a new face as 007. American actors were strongly considered. Robert Redford and Paul Newman both figured. Burt Reynolds was a rather unlikely frontrunner, before the producers resolved to go British and returned to a previously shelved option. Roger Moore had been in the frame when both Connery and George Lazenby won the role. A veteran of television thrillers and with nearly thirty years of screen acting behind him, Moore got a haircut, lost some weight (that was real champagne he drank with Tony Curtis on The Pretenders; much was quaffed) and strolled into the part.

Considering the direction taken by the franchise with Diamonds are Forever, ‘Rog’ was an eminently suitable choice. Arch, knowing and with his tongue permanently wedged in cheek, 007 and he were perfect bedfellows. Even the name Roger Moore is an innuendo – how much more appropriate could he be? Over the years, Moore would come to spend far too long in the part and was present for some of the series’ weakest entries, but he was the Bond I grew up with. He was my Bond, in the same way that Tom Baker was, and always will be, my Doctor Who.

Back in the day when televised film premieres counted for something, Live and Let Die’s UK network debut in 1980 was a big deal. 23.5m watched it and the new Bond. Moore brought a light touch to the role. He explained that he deliberately tried to distance himself from Connery’s interpretation, and this wasn’t just down to his choice of alcoholic beverage or a preference for neckties. There was his more comedic, mock-deferential attitude to M, the increased jokey flirtiness with Miss Moneypenny (which seems mutual, whereas I got the impression she would have jumped Connery in a heartbeat). Whereas the old Bond brought a sadistic touch to the way he dealt with his foes, Moore looked as though he found the whole killing business slightly distasteful. He’d do it, for Queen and country of course, but he didn’t have to like it.

All tied upLive and Let Die is a better film than Diamonds are Forever, and that’s because Moore fits more easily within the overall tone. The serious spycraft of older entries had long gone by this stage. All the film offers is a thrill ride – jump on and have fun! There are stunts, crocodiles, sharks, a speedboat chase, girls, Voodoo… what’s not to like? Moore is good at this sort of chicanery. The raised eyebrow from his Saint days might be kept in check here, but it twitches as his agent floats through the action, placed in perilous situations but always clear he isn’t going to suffer any serious harm.

Scraps remain from Fleming’s source novel, and the character of San Monique dictator, Dr Kananga, is an invention of Tom Mankiewicz’s screenplay. As it turned out, Kananga was born as the production team scouted for locations. Coming across a crocodile farm in Jamaica, they learned it was owned by a certain Ross Kananga, who not only lent his name to the film’s main baddie but also performed the famous crocodile jump stunt. The gate to his crocodile farm carried an ominous warning – ‘All Trespassers will be Eaten’ – which makes an appearance in the film because it’s so darn cool.

Live and Let Die was made at the height of Blaxploitation. At one point, Bond enters Harlem and, while the very appearance of a well dressed English gentleman in Manhattan’s ‘black’ district would be sensational enough, is subjected to a slew of jive talk, some of which is jaw droppingly awful and horribly dated. Amidst all the honky catcalls, he comes across the picture’s main love interest, Solitaire, who’s played by Jane Seymour. Dr Quinn and endless appearances in TV movies and mini series were still some way off, and Seymour is virginal loveliness, indeed her ability to read the Tarot is linked to her maidenhood. This is before Bond enters her life, of course, and ends all that nonsense via a ridiculously easy card trick. Julius Harris plays Tee Hee, the now traditional henchman with a quirk (in his instance, a robotic pincer that is naturally used for nastiness), and then there’s Mr Big (Yaphet Kotto), the underworld kingpin who has minions on every corner. A fantastic sense of danger follows Bond as soon as he sets foot in the States. His every move is relayed to Mr Big by walkie talkie carrying drones on each street corner. The driver taking him to Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is shot while the car is still moving. He sits in a bar alcove, only to find it’s a trap! It’s a shame the threat of Mr Big turns out to be so limited, no match for 007’s skills, yet the implication is quite thrilling.

Solitaire meets the snakeLess so is the film’s set piece special, a speedboat pursuit on the Louisiana bayou. Bond pulls every trick in the book to elude his pursuers, leading to a stunt-packed ride for viewers, yet it’s actually a little dull and lasts far too long. The whole thing is soured further when a local sheriff gets involved. J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) is the stereotypical Deep Souther, hauling a pot belly in his fruitless efforts to catch up with Bond. Poor old J.W.. Clearly inserted into the plot for nothing more than comic relief, his casual bigotry and evident stupidity are held up as reasons to dislike Live and Let Die (he also features in the ill-starred follow-up). On the plus side, in a film where the bad guys are all black, there’s some credit in making a white man the butt of the joke.

The worst thing about the boat chase is that it seems the film has a Louisiana sequence just to showcase it. Far better is Live and Let Die’s other pursuit scene, as Bond and Solitaire escape in a rundown double-decker bus, which becomes a single-decker after colliding with a low bridge. Better again is the voodoo business, just for its sheer daftness and fun with snakes. Rosie Carver (Blaxploitation veteran, Gloria Hendry) turns up as a treacherous CIA agent. Bond is on to her from the start, in his usual more ways than one (Queen and country again), yet she meets her maker via a bullet shot from one of Kananga’s scarecrows, superb and scary devices that can be used either for spying or assassination.

Live and Let Die enjoyed massive box office success and sealed Moore’s future as Bond. It also guaranteed the steer of the franchise, locked in spiralling levels of silliness as the aim was to provide fun and thrills, moving 007 along to the next action scene as briskly as the exposition would allow. It works here, just about, though later entries would demonstrate that the balance between entertainment and plain daftness was fine indeed. As Moore makes quips about ‘A genuine Felix Leiter’ to his CIA liaison’s voice emanating from a car lighter, and agents are offed during ingeniously double-edged jazz funerals, it’s enough of a ride to forget the absence of John Barry. Perhaps it helps that Live and Let Die features one of the series’ best theme songs, performed by Paul McCartney and Wings, which is referenced frequently in the funked up score.

 

Posted on 25th January 2011
Under: Uncategorized, 007 | 2 Comments »

Postlethwaite: In the Name of the Father

Steven Spielberg once described the late Pete Postlethwaite as the best actor in the world. I don’t know how true that is, though certainly his ability to become a character – rather than be an actor playing a character – defined his career. Perhaps such a talent worked against him for some years. I first wowed over Postlethwaite’s work in Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, but this succeeded nearly two decades of film acting, let alone his many appearances on television and in the theatre. Maybe before his playing of Guiseppe Conlon, he’d simply been too good at blending in to his roles, the result being an appreciation of the piece rather than the actor. In any event, it was only after In the Name of the Father that I realised he’d been in Alien3, The Last of the Mohicans, and so on.

In the Name of the Father is based on Proved Innocent, Gerry Conlon’s account of his confession under torture and subsequent imprisonment as one of the Guildford Four. The film – released in 1993, four years after the Four’s convictions were quashed – is a relatively faithful account of his text, with several minor embellishments and one major change, which concerns his relationship with his father. In reality, Guiseppe and Gerry never shared a cell, neither were the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven tried together, which means communication between father and son would have been minimal at best. Yet this relationship is at the very heart of the film, indeed it’s what gives the story so much substance. Without it, In the Name of the Father might very well have been gripping. Conlon’s tale is too devastating on its own merits. With the insertion of the Guiseppe-Gerry dynamic, it’s a killer.

Postlethwaite worked hard to win the role of the father, eager to play alongside his Bristol Old Vic colleague, Daniel Day-Lewis. Developing an utterly convincing Belfast accent and auditioning in a 1960s suit, just the sort Guiseppe would have worn, he made the part his own despite being only eleven years older than Day-Lewis. The film’s publicity focused heavily on Daniel, who had collaborated with Sheridan previously on My Left Foot. Anecdotes were told about the actor’s method sensibilities; crew members were told to abuse him on the prison set to encourage his feelings of paranoia and aloneness. But it’s Postlethwaite who shines, whether through the chemistry he shared with Day-Lewis or the sympathy he elicited for his performance. Guiseppe was imprisoned for his alleged part in the Guildford bombing after travelling to London to support his son. Eventually dying in prison, it fell upon Gerry to take on the cause of exonerating his dad after his own release. In the film, this follows years of the pair living together in the confined quarters of a prison cell. At first, they irritate each other madly. Gerry resents his father’s early attempts at appealing their sentence, believing it to be futile when what they should do is make the best of their lot. Guiseppe is frustrated by his son dabbling with drugs, mixing with the wrong sort and wasting his life. Over time, they learn to appreciate each other, or at least Gerry comes to terms with the guilt of realising that everything Guiseppe has done was for him. Wrestling with the knowledge initially by rebelling and later by taking over the campaign for freedom, Gerry achieves a sort of grace as the scale of Guiseppe’s sacrifice becomes clear.

In the Name of the Father isn’t easy viewing. To its credit, the film depicts the pre-imprisonment Gerry as a petty criminal and wastrel. He might not deserve his fate, but he certainly doesn’t live up to the standards of a father who watches out for his every step. Once detained for the crime of the bombing and held for seven days (via the Prevention of Terrorism Act), Gerry’s confession is tortured out of him methodically. He only cracks once an officer threatens to shoot Guiseppe, and as the later court scenes demonstrate he didn’t really stand a chance of escaping the kangaroo court mentality of a country wanting blood in exchange for the crime. The majority of the action takes place within Her Majesty’s. The film toys with prison cliches yet thankfully doesn’t overdo them. The stereotyped pseudo-Ronnie Kray kingpin may be present and correct, but the wardens and officers are portrayed as men just doing a job rather than sadists. Gerry turns to drugs when the token West Indians on his wing have a world map jigsaw in which the pieces have been coated in acid (’Try some Nepal’). Mostly, prison is boring and endless. Lifers loiter along the corridors, absently kicking bars and slumping against walls.

Day-Lewis is great as the prodigal Gerry, yet Guiseppe is the character one warms to. He’s the perfect father - harsh but forgiving, strict yet eterally patient. When he dies after years of steadily decreasing health, the way his fellow inmates deal with the news is gut-wrenching. He deserves better, but within their limited means the prisoners give him a poignant send-off. Also good, though overshadowed, is Emma Thompson as lawyer Gareth Peirce. Thompson was at the top of her considerable game in 1993, and gets one of the best scenes in the film as a clerical error hands her the key to exonerating the Four, but it isn’t really about her. Writing for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw argues that Postlethwaite’s tortured performance and doomed nobility was a key factor in the road to the Good Friday agreement. It seems a far-fetched supposition, though if any bit of acting could prove so influential then this is as good as any.

Postlethwaite became a star in the wake of In the Name of the Father, the go-to man for any casting directors seeking an actor with that ‘lived in’ look, someone who’s seen it all and tasted the varied pleasures and pains of existence. A standout for me was Brassed Off, the tale of a colliery band with little colliery to speak of and Postlethwaite bringing to bear all the pain of trying to hang on to the dregs of his pride whilst his world collapses around him. Elsewhere, he popped up in some of the biggest screen offerings. For Spielberg, he appeared twice in one year. One role was in the overblown Amistad. The other was in the underrated The Lost World, in which he strikes a chord as the hunter of the biggest game imaginable, but who senses the unsavoury end of his boss’s mission and knows exactly when to bow out. He even turned up recently in Inception, playing a dying man with (too much?) authenticity. Not a bad career for the sort of actor who at one point seemed to be damned as, oh you know, him from A Private Function, or, come to think of it, I’m sure he was in Crown Court once…

Posted on 10th January 2011
Under: Classics | No Comments »

Getting Hitched - ‘You’re my Type of Woman’

After reading several glowing reviews, I have finally got around to watching Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 murder story set in contemporary London. I’ve actually owned the film for several years as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Boxset, but have tried to watch the entries in chronological order and never got past Torn Curtain, which seems sadly uninspired and, in a world where there are too many films to watch and so little time… In any event, it’s a big mistake of mine that I left it so long before catching Frenzy, which marked a late return to form, even if it makes for uncomfortable, pessimistic viewing.

What makes Frenzy such a difficult watch is its unflinching depiction of rape. Even from a director who showed us the knifings in Psycho and the horrors of The Birds, this is new territory, almost mundane in its portrayal of a casual assault and made worse because it comes from nowhere. The suggestion is clear enough – horrific rape can happen any time, anywhere. The victim doesn’t see it coming, and is sitting in the business she manages when it happens. From a relative position of authority, she’s suddenly reduced to meat. Neither does the camera spare us for a second. There’s nothing gratuitous about the scene. The victim doesn’t lead her killer on. She isn’t ‘asking for it’ and there isn’t a second’s justification for what happens to her. It’s a grubby, squalid act, the rape even dissatisfying for the protagonist before he finally gets off on killing her.

As a moment of direction it’s masterly, squeezing even the merest hint of glamour from the situation. But it’s also extremely shocking. Before watching Frenzy, I knew the film contained a rape scene, but I wasn’t aware of the identities of either the rapist or victim, so when it came the moment left me unprepared and repulsed. From reading accounts of real-life rape victims, it also gives the impression of being grimly authentic. The viewer is spared from seeing further attacks in such detail, but it’s implied that each one is just as opportunistic and random. It could happen to you, the film says. You don’t need to do anything to cause it; neither can you fully know what lazy evil lurks within the bloke chatting to you. When  it comes to the next murder scene, Frenzy doesn’t need to show us anything, stopping outside the door of a first floor flat into which the killer has guided his victim. We all know what’s going to happen next. In solemn silence, the camera retreats down the stairs, along the hall and outside, the sounds of Covent Garden Market flooding in to hint that this is just another day in London.

The charming Richard BlaneyFrenzy tells the story of the Necktie Murderer, so called because his female victims are discovered wearing nothing but the tie with which they have been asphyxiated. The first is found in the film’s opening scene. A Minister is explaining to a small crowd how the Thames is being cleaned up before someone spots the naked corpse of a murdered woman floating towards the shore. It’s made clear this isn’t the first victim; the Necktie Murderer is already a figure of notoriety in London and as yet, the police have no leads.

By an unfortunate series of circumstances, suspicion falls on Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), a former RAF Officer who’s fallen on hard times and, in his first appearance, is being unfairly sacked from his barman’s job. Everything conspires against Blaney. The victim in the rape scene is his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), with whom he has been seen by a number of people exchanging angry words. Their divorce was on the grounds of his violence. He’s been spending money that gives every indication of being stolen from her, possibly after the murder. Yet whilst Blaney fits the bill and becomes the object of a manhunt, he isn’t the killer. Indeed, the circumstances leading to the finger pointing at him are all explained in the film, though everything occurs in such a way that he has little option but to run.

This plot is of course nothing new to Hitchcock. The ‘mistaken identity’ narrative has been told many times before, from The 39 Steps through Young and Innocent and Saboteur, to its ultimate expression in North by Northwest. But Frenzy offers an even more delicious instance of misdirection. In North by Northwest, it’s clear from the start that Cary Grant’s ‘wrong man’ is essentially a good guy. He’s a dapper hero, and lots of fun. We root for him from the start. Not so here. Blaney might be innocent, but he isn’t a very nice piece of work. There are obvious anger management issues at work, and on the surface he appears far less likeable than the man who emerges as the murderer.

The even more charming Robert Rusk - you're his kind of womanThe film’s third victim is Babs Milligan (Anna Massey), Blaney’s on-off girlfriend. After sleeping with the bad-tempered Richard, she’s unfortunate enough to run into the killer and suffer his necktie. As chance would have it, Blaney has an alibi for this one. He’s staying with an ex-service friend when the murder happens. Crucially, he shows no remorse when he hears about her death, instead expressing relief that at least one other person knows it couldn’t have been him. Perhaps if he’d been a little more regretful, his friend would have corroborated his story instead of slinking off to France to avoid being accused of harbouring a wanted man.

The murderer is all charm and smiles. There are hints of what lurks beneath, yet these are teased out only when it’s too late. He does get the film’s most blackly comic moment, when he’s trapped in the back of a speeding potato truck, trying to remove an incriminating item from the corpse of one of his victims and struggling to overcome the practical problems linked with rigour mortis. Otherwise, he appears to hold all the aces, letting suspicion fall on Blaney and then betraying him at the optimum moment.

Yet the killer is only the worst in a London filled with dubious characters. Made at the end of the Swinging Era, Frenzy is set in a city with a heart that’s morally bankrupt. Blaney is nobody’s idea of a hero. His former employer, Felix (Bernard Cribbins) is a hypocritical lecher. In his pub, casual jokes about rape are bandied as though it’s all a bit of fun. Someone screams from the first floor of a building, and two women who are passing simply walk on by. It’s as though London finally embodies the rotten core described by Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, a film released nearly forty years earlier and in which he famously paints the world as ‘a foul sty… if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine.’ Another film from the early seventies depicts the city’s dark heart. Dracula AD 1972 might have been a desperate attempt by Hammer to squeeze the last drops of inspiration from their Count, but it works because it suggests Dracula could thrive in a London that has thrown open its gates to evil. Clearly, the period marked an end of innocence in the capital, a wake-up call after the optimism of the 1960s. It’s this spirit Frenzy captures so dramatically.

 

Posted on 2nd January 2011
Under: Hitchcock | 2 Comments »

Hammer Time! Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)

‘Bodies are easy to come by. Souls are not.’

Franknstein Created Woman posterHammer’s fourth entry in the Frankenstein series is also one that’s been damned with faint praise over the years. Speaking at a National Film Theatre season in 1987, curator Martin Scorsese declared it to be one of his favourites, discussing the metaphysics behind the Baron’s ability to isolate the human soul, which to him was ‘close to something sublime.’ Like many American Hammer fans, the young Scorsese visited many a drive-in screening with his friends, and loved the films for their ‘dark fairytale’ qualities, of which Frankenstein Created Woman is a prime example.

The realism pervading the new crop of American horrors – Rosemary’s Baby was released a year after this one – had no place here, where the action takes place in a fictional central European village. The locals are pitchfork-wielding dullards, the lawmakers prone to sweeping generalisations and kangaroo courts. Even the village doctor, the wonderful Thorley Walters’s Doctor Hertz, is a self-confessed muddlehead, utterly in thrall to Frankenstein. At the centre of it all is the good Baron himself, unashamedly up to his old tricks after three previously failed attempts and still in absolute conviction about his own abilities. It’s to the considerable credit of Peter Cushing that he breathes some credibility into his character. Anyone else would have given up long ago. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein realised the error of his ways after the consequences of creating his first monster, a trait copied by Colin Clive in Universal’s series. Yet Cushing has no such qualms, pursuing his dream of creating life from dead flesh with the kind of single-minded obsession that could only work in a formulaic sequence of films underwritten by American distributors that were happy to cough up for more of the same old magic.

Cushing gives us a softer-edged Baron here. Whilst as clinical as ever, he has stopped killing to get what he wants and even displays the odd moment of kindness. Yet there’s nothing altruistic about Frankenstein. When he takes to the dock to defend the doomed Hans (Robert Morris), his generous words about the boy are tempered by a desire to get back to his work with the merest interruption. In a delicious moment that was presumably inserted by the actor, he thumbs critically through a Bible whilst waiting to give his evidence, as though it’s just another textbook for which he has little time. In his harsher moments, he’s quite unkind to Hertz, railroading the addle-headed doctor into procuring corpses for him and doing much of his dirty work. It’s also clear that he genuinely has little time for Hans, defending him because he’s a servant and losing him would be an irritant in the relentless work schedule.

The village guillotine, pre-executionThe other gem of the film is Susan Denberg, a former Playboy Playmate who turns out to be far better than the usual pretty face recruited by Hammer to put the glamour into their pictures. Denberg plays Christina, the disfigured daughter of a local innkeeper. Pathetically, she brushes her hair over the deformed half of her face and allows herself to be bullied by the local, drunken toffs (Peter Blythe, Derek Fowlds and Barry Warren). The latter are nasty pieces of work, mercilessly teasing Christina and allowing their liquor addiction to take over, breaking into the inn after closing time to continue their party. The innkeeper returns and is beaten to death for his trouble. The rich bastards get away with their crime, and instead blame falls on Hans, partly because he’s left a coat in the inn but mainly as a consequence of being the son of a guillotined criminal and the court duly convicts him due to the old mantra - like father, like son. Hans soon loses his head and the tragic Christina, who has been carrying on a touching love affair with him, takes her own life.

The Baron sees all this death as an opportunity. Capturing the soul of Hans via a procedure that fortunately isn’t explained but results in a suspended ball of light, he transfers it into Christina’s body, both restoring her to life and repairing her damaged body. Now looking every inch the blonde bombshell, Christina can’t remember anything about her previous life until the Baron tests her by showing her the guillotine, which activates the ‘Hans’ inside her and sends her on a spree of hot vengeance. Christina/Hans starts killing the dandies, using her looks and newfound sexuality to first ensnare and then butcher them. They have no idea who she is beyond a vague recollection, and in fairness Christina looks little like the broken woman she was before the Baron got his hands on her.

Christina prepares for murderDenberg effectively plays three parts – the deformed, pre-suicidal girl, the reanimated beauty with no memory, and the possessed murderess. A lot hinges on her performance and she’s equal to it, even if the script – by John Elder, producer Anthony Hinds’s nom de plume – doesn’t allow her much room beyond what she needs to do in order to advance the plot. Indeed, the complicated Baron aside, none of the characters exist beyond their stereotypes, generics that can be summarised in quick words and phrases. Fortunately, in Cushing exists the beating heart of the film, a driven man whose quest for scientific answers reduces everyone around him to pawns in the grand game. Frankenstein might be less murderous than in previous episodes, but it’s obvious to him that Hertz and Hans are there to help him get from A to B, and even Christina is a means to an end. In the film’s final scenes, when the Baron looks at the body of one of the murdered toffs, one gets the impression he’s wondering whether the corpse – like the others he’s used – can serve his purposes.

Uber-Director Terence Fisher was back in charge of Frankenstein Created Woman. In one of the last Hammer productions based at Bray Studios, budgets were tight and consequently, Fisher was forced to confine his filming to the small village set built for the film. It isn’t bad, featuring the splendid design work that defined these films. What it does achieve is a degree of claustrophobia, a feeling that the characters are trapped in their little world and the small-minded people who dwell therein. Fisher also makes good use of lighting, particularly in a scene where the unleashed Christina lurks in a darkened room, cast in shadow yet the cleaver in her hand is clearly visible. The village is otherwise dominated by its terrible guillotine, left handily atop a hillock as though to remind everyone what could await. Chillingly, whilst there are two uses of it in the film, no decapitations are shown - all we get is the stark clunk of the blade hitting wood, and a shot of it being hoisted up, now covered in fresh blood.

Where this film deserves its plaudits isn’t so much in Scorsese’s comments but rather the infinite possibilities surrounding Frankenstein’s legend. Elder could have trotted out the usual tale, in the way Hammer generally did with their Dracula franchise, and no doubt the film would have clawed back its money. Yet the decision to explore different facets of the Baron’s science takes the story down an interesting and fresh route. The exploitative title isn’t mirrored by Frankenstein Created Woman’s content, and the film suggested that the only limits to what the genius might get up to next were the imaginations of its writing team.

 

Posted on 23rd December 2010
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‘Shaken, not Stirred’ - Diamonds are Forever (1971)

‘That’s quite a nice little nothing you’re almost wearing. I approve.’

The modest commercial success of On her Majesty’s Secret Service worked out as box office failure in terms of any other movie franchise. 007 was big business. Before George Lazenby became Bond, his name had produced a financial juggernaut for United Artists. The producers wanted that momentum back, which meant a crisis of faith for Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as they looked to reboot him again.

Diamonds are Forever posterInitially, it was intended that Bond would go through a process of Americanisation. John Gavin was signed up for the role before the studio revealed it had spared no expense in hiring Sean Connery, which is what everyone really wanted to happen in the first place. The Scottish actor didn’t come cheap. Connery got a flat fee of $1.25m, an extravagant sum for the time, plus 10% of the film’s profits and a deal to make two further projects with United Artists. Famously, he showed how much the money meant by handing his fee over to the Scottish International Educational Trust. In the meantime, Gavin was still under contract and earned his cash for walking away from the film. Not a bad day’s work.

Diamonds are Forever was not the next Bond in the Fleming series, but it was selected for filming thanks to its America-centred plot. As was now tradition, very little of the original story remained save for the diamond smuggling theme, Bond’s disguise as Peter Franks and the two villains, Mr Wint and Mr Kidd. It was decided that with Connery back, they would bow to audience tastes and remake Goldfinger, or at least produce something very much in the same spirit. Initially, the villain of the piece was to be Auric’s brother, Gert Frobe (the original Goldfinger) showing an interest in reprising his role. Eventually, the idea was shelved in favour of Ernst Stavro Blofeld returning, though Goldfinger’s director, Guy Hamilton, was hired for Diamonds and a conscious attempt was made to expel the emotionally rich overtones of OHMSS to make way for an adventure romp.

Connery was perfect for just that Bond, a near impervious action hero who seemed somehow removed from what was going on around him. It was difficult to picture his agent agreeing to anything as binding and permanent as marriage, but very easy to see him escaping from harm with barely a scratch. As usual, he would dominate the film though sheer physical presence and charisma, though he couldn’t – or perhaps refused to – disguise his lack of interest in the proceedings. The promise demonstrated by his hate-fuelled pursuit of Blofeld in the opening scenes isn’t sustained, leading to a detached performance from an actor who too often looks tired and grey. By all accounts, Connery preferred playing golf to acting his scenes, and whilst the cast and crew dismissed this with ‘That’s just Sean’ joviality it must have been frustrating to work with their detached star.

The lovely Jill St. JohnIf it was bad enough that the film’s leading man was going through the motions, then Diamonds’ real tragedy is that the whole film was made in this spirit. This was an exercise in formulaic, by the numbers Bond-age. The plot seems designed to rush the action from set piece to set piece. There’s virtually no character development, and neither Jill St. John nor Charles Gray as the Bond girl and baddie respectively are well cast. Gray suffers badly. The third incarnation of Blofeld, he doesn’t have any of Donald Pleasance’s  megalomania, neither can he carry the action man villainy of Telly Savalas. What he does bring to the table is campness and one bizarre scene that finds him in drag – can you imagine the never seen, all powerful Number One of From Russia with Love disguised as a woman? As for St. John, she’s easy on the eye and willing to parade through much of the film wearing very little. But that’s it. As a character, she’s supposed to be a hard-nosed diamond smuggler, yet she appears incapable of smuggling any credibility into her performance.

The action scenes are exactly what you might expect from 007, which in itself is a problem as there’s very little suspense to be had from moments that are technically impressive but ultimately contain little real peril. There’s a bravura car chase through the streets of Las Vegas that ends when Bond drives through a narrow alleyway on two wheels. After filming the scenes, Hamilton realised that the car enters the alley upturned on one side but exits on the other. His answer was to shoehorn in a shot of the car flipping from one side to the other, shown by pointing the camera at the actors and then tilting it. Maybe he would have got away with this in 1971. Current viewers should spot such nonsense instantly - why didn’t they just reshoot one of the scenes to make it fit? Elsewhere, Bond is placed in too many supposedly dangerous situations from which he can easily escape. At one point, Mr Wint and Mr Kidd have an unconscious 007 on their hands. Instead of just shooting him, they leave him unharmed in some piping, which is later fitted into a desert pipeline. Sure enough, Bond wakes up and gets away without breaking sweat.

The crew of Diamonds enjoyed a number of liberties when shooting in Las Vegas, thanks to the ‘at arm’s length’ patronage of reclusive oligarch, Howard Hughes. In return, a character based on Hughes was worked into the plot. Blofeld manages to escape identity for so long by kidnapping Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean) and pretending to be him. Because no one sees Whyte, the villain gets away with it by mimicking his voice over the phone, which fools everyone until Bond eventually finds and frees the real thing. Naturally, Whye turns out to be some sort of hero, playing a significant role in getting 007 to the Californian oil rig that serves as Blofeld’s headquarters. It’s actually quite a good plot point, based on the reclusivity of Hughes and the possibility he had been unseen for so long that it would be possible for Blofed to pose as him. Indeed, the eventual narrative of Diamonds followed a dream of Cubby Broccoli’s, in which he talks to Hughes, who at first is turned away from him. The billionaire shifts to face him, and it’s at that moment Broccoli finds it isn’t Hughes at all.

Mr Wint and Mr KittA further plus comes with Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, played by Bruce Glover and Putter Smith. The openly gay pair are a hoot, though undeniably vicious, and they fit in with the camp sadism that overshadows the production. In the same spirit are Bambi and Thumper, a pair of murderous gymnasts who guard Whyte and almost cartwheel Bond into next week. These are memorable baddies, but Blofeld isn’t. In the end, it’s kind of apt that his downfall is a comedic one, though it’s a sorry swansong for the one time formidable head of SPECTRE.

Diamonds are Forever was a considerable box office success, which suggests a win for all concerned. Yet it also seemed clear that the franchise looked tired and lacked any kind of spark, whether this could be attributed to Connery’s weary performance, the absence of chemistry between him and St, John, or the creatively bankrupt proceedings. 007 ever tred a fine line between credibility and outright fantasy, and threatened to slip into parody, particularly once it was established that Bond could never face any real harm. For the first time here, the silliness was embraced, as seen in the desert chase that has our hero driving a moon buggy. Worse was to come, but for now the main issue facing Bond’s overlords was how to replace their leading man. Connery was finished in the role (though you should never say ‘never’) and it was time for a fresh start, an actor who could take the franchise in a new, daring direction. Or just hire Roger Moore and carry on rehashing the same old formula…

Postscript. Is it just me, or is the lack of a Bond film on British TV during Christmas day something worth lamenting? No doubt ITV1 has better things to screen prior to the Queen’s Speech (or it hasn’t, and we’re being spoonfed the sugar-coated Polar Express), but I miss my slice of 007, particularly when they really got it right and showed a snow-based episode. Surely, nothing fits the bill better than On her Majesty’s Secret Service, which even contains a Christmas scene. Come on Crozier, get it right!

 

Posted on 13th December 2010
Under: 007 | 3 Comments »

Don’t turn around! Don’t make a sound!

It’s been a while, and though my film watching has continued unabated (along with some half-written germs of reviews and many more semi-conceived outlines for bits of writing!) it’s been my treat to pick up the latest Hammer Icons set. Following the Adventure and Horror releases comes Icons of Suspense, a collection of six black and white offerings that show a number of different sides to the studio.

Hammer Icons of SuspenseThe tagline ‘Six Edge of your Seat Classics’ might be pushing it a bit, yet the Region 1 set presents some really good films that might otherwise have remained half-forgotten and unrestored in a lonely vault. As usual, the process of cleaning up these gems for DVD release is nothing short of remarkable. Digital crispness and sharp mono sound are the order of the day here. The lack of extras is a problem that lingers from Icons of Horror. All we get are trailers, which provide a typical sense of the gaudy thrills that surrounded each Hammer release, but there’s nothing else upon which to chew. The commentaries that accompanied Icons of Adventure are sadly absent, though some of the other extras on that set struck me as ‘grafted on’ rather than being essential companion pieces.

More troubling is the way the three discs are stacked onto a single hub, a sign of the lack of love that went into distributing the set that isn’t evidenced in the restoration. Surely, a bit more thought wouldn’t have gone amiss, and whilst on the subject there must be plenty of documentary material concerning Hammer that might have served as a nice addition.

Oh well, at least we have the films themselves, none of which I had seen previously. Some I will definitely watch again, particularly those with the tightest plotting, the economical storytelling that defined Hammer’s output. Others, the baggier efforts, seem to have been bulked out from short stories that were bloated to ensure a feature length release. Crucially, none are really weak, and for my money two of the pictures are bona fide classics…

Stop Me Before I Kill (1960)
The first entry in the set is this psychological thriller directed by Val Guest, which was released as The Full Treatment in the UK. We start with a car crash, and the rest of the film deals with its aftermath. Driver Alan Colby (Ronald Lewis) returns to physical health but fights a compulsion to murder his wife, Denise (Diane Cilento). Recuperating in Cannes, they meet psychiatrist, David Prade (Claude Dauphin), who offers to help Colby. The treatment can’t come too soon. Colby is unable to make love to Denise because he thinks he will throttle her. A wire he comes across in their flat becomes a near-fatal garotting weapon. Eventually, Prade helps our hero to come to terms with the car crash. He thinks he’s sane, but the following morning Denise is missing and their bathroom is a mess of blood…

Cushing in Cash on DemandGuest is a renowned writer-director in the Hammer canon, and there are moments in this film that remind you of his talent. One sequence finds Denise enjoying a skinny dip, watched by Colby but, as it turns out, also by Prade. Observing her through his binoculars, Denise’s shapely form is reflected in each voyeuristic lens. The trouble with the piece is that, at 108 minutes, it’s too long. The traditional, sub-90 minutes running time that was a hallmark of Hammer gives way to padding, too much padding, and there really isn’t enough going on to justify the extra minutes. That said, it saves its best thrills for the end, and while you might not feel much for the stiff, remote Alan, Cilento is a vision as Denise. The film also features an excessively dodgy cable car, the sort of contraption that screams ‘Abandon hope all who enter here.’

Cash on Demand (1961)
Things improve greatly with Cash on Demand, and not just for the presence of Hammer heavyweights Peter Cushing and Andre Morell. The film is based on an episode of the televised anthology series, Theatre 70, where it was called Gold Inside and featured Morell in the same role of suave robber, Colonel Gore-Hepburn. Here, Cushing is bank manager, Mr Fordyce, the sort of joy-free model of efficiency that every branch might have called for at one time. The plot is simple. Gore-Hepburn tells Fordyce that his wife is kidnapped and will be tortured and killed unless he helps him clean out the vault. The manager has no choice but to comply, knowing that one false step could leave him a widower.

The film is 80-minutes long, and an exercise in taut plotting and tension. Every ounce of suspense is etched onto Fordyce’s face as his world unravels around him. Morell appears to enjoy himself immensely, and with much of the action taking place in the manager’s office the two actors simply riff off each other. They’re note-perfect performances, particularly from Cushing whose cold veneer crumbles as he’s undermined and bullied by the robber. A scene of unexpected violence actually brings a tear to his eye, and there’s a cracking moment when he has to get a safe open before the alarm goes off, made exquisite as he fumbles for his keys cack-handedly.

Cash on Demand takes place on 23 December. The importance of Christmas is apparent, Fordyce coming across initially as Scrooge-like to his staff as they plan a seasonal party. This frostiness, particularly to his long-suffering deputy, Pearson (Richard Vernon), thaws by the film’s close, suggesting nods to ‘A Christmas Carol’ that can’t - and perhaps shouldn’t - be avoided. It’s a splendid piece of work. Incredibly, it took two years for the film to make it from completion to the screen, and then as a slimmed down support feature.

The Snorkel (1958)
The maniac from ManiacThe first scene of The Snorkel depicts a murder, an ingeniously planned and executed crime that isn’t unravelled until the final reel. By then, killer Paul Decker (Peter Van Eyck) believes he has gotten away with it, successfully doing away with both the mother and father of young Candy (Mandy Miller) in order to come into the family’s money. His only concern remains Candy herself. The girl is convinced that he’s responsible, and as the plot develops he realises he will need to see to her also before she figures out what’s going on and exposes him.

The Snorkel was directed by Guy Green, who had won an Oscar in 1948 for the cinematography on Great Expectations. Consequently, this is a film that looks great, even when filming in dark, confined spaces. It’s just a shame about the narrative, which slows down considerably following the first murder before picking up for the climax.Despite that, it’s a neatly made thriller. Van Eyck carries off his role superbly, at once ruthless murderer and figure of respectability whose cool never seems to break. Mandy Miller was a child star (she was BAFTA nominated for her role in 1952’s Mandy) who restricted her appearances to television following her convincing playing of Candy.

Maniac (1963)
Hammer goes all film noir for this thriller, a vehicle for matinee star Kerwin Mathews. Personally, I saw Mathews as a bland lead. Good looking yet oddly lacking in charisma in the likes of The Pirates of Blood River and Jack the Giant Killer, it’s here that he comes into his own as the roaming point of a love triangle. Dropped in sultry France (MGM’s Borehamwood backlot doubling suitably), Mathews plays a drifting painter who stays in a bar and falls for the landlady’s stepdaughter (Liliane Brousse). Little does he know that the girl is a rape victim. Her father killed the rapist and was subsequently declared criminally insane. At first, the landlady, Eve (Nadia Gray), appears to disapprove of the blossming affair, but it turns out she wants Kerwin for herself. It isn’t long before she has him ensnared and involves him in a plot to break her husband out of his asylum prison, and it’s here the troubles begin for our hero.

Several elements elevate this film into something a bit special. First, Mathews is excellent as Paul, quickly realising he’s part of a bigger plot and trying to keep from drifting out of his depth. Gray too plays a fantastic part. Eve is sexy, needy and conniving. The story burns slowly in the opening chapters but picks up after the breakout, when the man they helped to escape starts haunting his old family. The twists stack up and it’s never clear who is double-crossing who.

Never take Candy from a StrangerA dark treat, featuring a clever screenplay by Jimmy Sangster and Michael Carreras on directing duties. The latter has a tendency to stop the action in favour of some unnecessary diversion from time to time, but cranks up the sense of urgency when it matters.

Never take Candy from a Stranger (1960)
The tagline from this rarity went ‘Powerful! Shocking! Raw! Rough! Challenging! See a little girl molested!’, which lent the film a degree of luridity it didn’t need. In fact, Never take Candy from a Stranger treats its subject matter - that of child abuse - very seriously, whilst working both as a courtroom drama and latterly a thriller. When Peter Carter (Patrick Allen) takes a job as the school principal within a Canadian township, he takes with him his wife Sally (Gwen Watford) and young dauther, Jean (Janina Faye). The community is dominated by the Olderberry family, who own the area’s industrial concerns that provides work for its people. One evening, Jean reveals that she danced naked for Olderberry Snr (Felix Aylmer) in exchange for candy, and Carter files a complaint.

At this point, the film examines the prejudices of the day. It seems everyone knows that Olderberry is up to this kind of behaviour yet there’s a strong urge not to upset the applecart that involves taking him to court. The Olderberrys are just too powerful. Too much is at stake. Carter begins to experience the shunning of a town that would rather not have to deal with this sort of trouble, and sure enough the old pervert is acquitted after a harrowing courtroom experience for Jean. Let loose, the clearly demented Olderberry has one more shock left up his sleeve for Jean and her friend.

The final act, while shocking, is slightly out of kilter with what has already taken place. Never take Candy’s main message, that money can prejudice the wheels of justice, is a powerful one, today as it was fifty years ago, and director Cyril Frankel handles the sensitive nature of the trial with real intelligence. That such an ending was tacked on gives the impression the film needed to come full circle, of revealing the consequences of a wrongful acquittal, and while there’s nothing wrong with it as such it really isn’t necessary.

These are the Damned (1963)
These are the DamnedThese are the Damned opens with the story of Teddy Boy gangs mugging unsuspecting tourists and at some point enters the realm of science fiction. Of all the pieces presented in this set, it’s the most ambiguous and refuses to comply with the usual Hammer staples of tight plotting and trimming away the baggage. Of the latter, the early scenes in which Oliver Reed’s cronies terrorise an American tourist (Macdonald Carey) don’t really fit in with what the film is ultimately trying to say, though as usual Reed is suitably scary as King - was he influenced by Alex from A Clockwork Orange (Burgess’s book was published a year before this film’s release), or indeed was his performance an influence on Stanley Kubrick?

Later, via an extended chase scene the characters stumble across a government experiment, namely a group of children who are being raised in isolation from the real world. They’re radioactive, in preparation for a post-nuclear war environment where they will be able to survive and restart the human race. Carey and his girl, Joan (Shirley Anne Field) resolve to rescue the kids from this madness, with the reluctant help of King, who is already experiencing the first symptoms of radiation exposion.

These are the Damned picks up once the main characters and children come into contact with each other. But it takes so long to get there, so much nonsense involving Carey and Joan as he tries to woo her (and viewers attempt to ignore the fact that he’s fifty and easily old enough to be her father), and the pursuit by King that hints at incestual undertones. There’s another character, a sculptress, who appears to be in the film for no other reason than because her house is a convenient place for hiding out in… That said, there’s undoubted power in the film’s main message concerning anxiety over the nuclear threat, and a sense of anger at the folly of humankind that overshadows the work. The film’s very last scene is one of the bleakest you are every likely to come across.

Posted on 26th July 2010
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‘Shaken, not Stirred’ - On her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

‘It’s all right. It’s quite all right, really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world.’

Original OHMSS posterOn her Majesty’s Secret Service is an oddity in the Bond franchise. It almost bisects the Connery and Moore eras (’almost’ because Connery had another turn - or even two - as 007 left in him), and it plays like a return to the early days with its lack of gadgetry and spectacle. Then there’s its star. George Lazenby. The Australian model who just wasn’t Sean Connery, no matter how good the performance or material he was working with. OHMSS enjoyed respectable box office yet didn’t make the kind of fortune of the previous outings, which did for Lazenby whose ‘fall’ has attached a stigma to the movie ever since.

Over the years, Lazenby has become a byword for bad casting. So rubbished is his reputation that I expected to watch OHMSS and find myself cringing at his hamminess, wondering if my dining table was more or less wooden than his acting. Maybe directors warn their young actors to watch out or they’ll end up like George Lazenby. And so it came as some surprise that he wasn’t terrible at all. He could act. He had range, and most importantly for this role he had some degree of presence. In fact, he was pretty good, all told. His take on the part certainly demanded something different than what Connery had tackled previously.

In the film, Bond is expected to reveal his vulnerability more than once. There’s a scene where he is being pursued by Blofeld’s stooges through a Swiss village. He’s spent a good while eluding and tussling with them all the way down from SPECTRE’s mountaintop retreat and they’re closing in. Utterly drained, Bond has little left in him other than to pull his collars up, sit on a bench and look anonymous. Lazenby portrays the defeat and fear coursing through his body really well. It’s hard to imagine Connery pulling it off so convincingly. Even when his Bond was chased through a street carnival in Thunderball, Connery never looked as though he was in any real danger. But then, that was 007 as superhero. Lazenby’s brief is to play him as a human being and he’s up to the challenge. Sure, he was no Connery, but then imagine how everyone’s favourite Bond might have rough-housed his way through the climactic scene in OHMSS and be thankful that he didn’t. In Lazenby’s hands, Bond has to despair, and he does. More than once. And maybe it was this that sealed his fate; after all, the franchise became the juggernaut it did on the back of its star winking cheekily at death. Did punters queue up at the theatres to see 007 cry?

The happy couple... for nowAll that’s in the past, and the exploration of those complex emotions turning Daniel’s Craig blunt weapon into the cold-hearted killer he is in Casino Royale has lent a degree of revision to Lazenby’s turn. It’s after the depthless Roger Moore years that we can feel a sense of regret that the one-off didn’t get more chances to get to grips with his character, exposing the vulnerability of 007 yet further within a world that expects him to show little remorse. We got hints of his Bond in the character played by Timothy Dalton, and it’s little surprise that the complicated agent from The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill has turned out to be an artistic high point for the franchise, albeit one that didn’t mix too well with the public and forced it to revert to type with the safe Pierce Brosnan.

In the meantime, this one’s well worth another look. Diana Rigg, her career at its zenith, had the privilege of featuring throughout the film. The leading lady’s early appearance and co-starring role offered Rigg a rare opportunity to give her character - the Countessa Terasa Di Vincenzo, or just Tracy - almost as much depth as Lazenby’s 007, and she didn’t waste it. The pair have great chemistry, making their mutual attraction on the screen and subsequent engagement quite believable. Indeed, the only negative in her performance is the moment when she lulls Blofeld (Telly Savalas) into a false sense of security by reciting poetry to him as Bond and her father’s men close in on the villain’s headquarters. It’s a scene that just doesn’t work, suggesting Blofeld is a poor sucker for womanly wiles after he has spent the majority of the picture manipulating innocent females.

Telly Savalas - a more dynamic BlofeldElsewhere, Savalas adds a triumphant edge to the part of the main baddie. If Donald Pleasance suggested Blofeld as a twisted, deformed gnome, here he’s an action man, as prone to ski chases and bobsled pursuits as he is hatching fresh plans for world domination. As it is, Pleasance might sound closer to the mark, yet Savalas pulls it off through sheer charisma. His meetings with Bond - following those involving Pleasance and Connery in You Only Live Twice - provide an early instance of the Bond adventures not following a linear path. If the pair crossed paths previously, then why doesn’t Blofeld recognise 007 instantly, instead just about falling for his disguise as heraldry expert, Sir Hilary Bray?

Throw in a dramatic location at the very peak of the Alps, a favouring of brains over Q’s toys, and one of the best John Barry scores ever linked with a Bond film (it’s certainly on a par with You Only Live Twice), and you have the makings of an instant classic. But OHMSS has more up its perfectly tailored sleeve than that. The first half of the story tracks Bond’s attempts to discover and infiltrate Blofeld’s headquarters. This he does via Tracy, whose father (Gabrielle Ferzetti) has information that leads to where the evildoer is hiding. Along the way, he falls for the frosty girl, and the feelings become mutual as she succumbs to his lengthy courtship, sheer tenacity and charm. Once Blofeld imprisons Bond, the movie takes a turn for the exciting. The fun begins with a pursuit down a seemingly endless mountainside on skis. It’s a thrilling ride, made sublime by the work of Willy Bogner Jr, the former Alpine ski racer who shot reams of footage with the camera strapped to his chest, offering a skier’s eye view of the action. John Jordan filmed further scenes whilst sitting in a cradle that was suspended from a helicopter, allowing him to get unique shots of the stuntwork. Ever committed to carrying out the camera duties that others wouldn’t dare take on, Jordan had already lost a leg after an accident during the shooting of You Only Live Twice, and was to die a year later when another mishap whilst filming from a helicopter caused him to be sucked out and sent plummeting to his death. Scenes like those shot here are a testament to his amazing craft and single-minded commitment to getting the best footage possible. Added to the riveting ski scenes are a stock car race on ice, an avalanche that was provoked by planting strategically placed bombs in the snow, and a bobsled chase down Piz Gloria. It’s exhilerating stuff, never letting up, and only the most emotionally devastating pay-off could ever top it.

Blofeld's Alpine lairThis we get with the last few minutes of the film. Having left Blofeld hanging from a tree trunk by his neck, seemingly paralysed, Bond marries Tracy, inviting all his Secret Service mates and even listening to some friendly advice from Q. As James and Tracy drive off in the flower-lined car, everything feels too perfect, and of course it is. The couple indulge in some verbal foreplay as they drive along mountain roads, and then stop to remove the flowers from their car. Blofeld and hench(wo)man Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat) drive past and abruptly shower them with bullets. Bond survives, hurling himself behind the car, but as he’s about to set off in pursuit, he realises with a start that Tracy has been shot, point blank, in the head. Stunned, he cradles her body, tells a passing policeman not to hurry with help because there’s all the time in the world, and drops his head into hers with a lasting sob. The moment, shocking in its quiet tragedy after all the prior action, is weighted sublimely. Lazenby nails it, coming across as neither too bluff or hysterical. It’s something Connery simply couldn’t - or wouldn’t - have managed as well. Perhaps this is because, as film critic Danny Peary noted, the original Bond was more self-assured and virile. He commanded any scene in which he appeared, whilst Lazenby was not so confident and on occasion more vulnerable. Connery’s agent would never have allowed himself to fall in love with one woman, maybe aware that life was too short and easily lost to make it work. In Lazenby’s hands, Bond dares to lose his heart, gets married and pays the ultimate price.

The frequent mentions of Connery in this piece gives a good impression of why the Australian had just one Bond film in him. Knowing Broccoli and Saltzman were casting for a new 007, Lazenby went to Connery’s barber and asked for a similar haircut, and then solicited his tailor for an identical suit. Thus armed, he hung around outside Saltzman’s offices until his secretary was distracted, and then promptly introduced himself to the producer as the new Bond. The stunt worked, but in the end Lazenby didn’t. Rumours that he was difficult to work with slipped from the production to the press, and it seems he struggled to identify with the newfound attention he was enjoying. Yet what really made his stay a short one was the unavoidable crime of not being Sean Connery. When the film didn’t enjoy the box office success of its predecessors (though it went on to be the biggest grossing movie of 1969), something had to change, and Lazenby became the scapegoat. Director Peter Hunt saw this as a pity, and perhaps it was. It’s left On her Majesty’s Secret Service as the franchise’s curiousity piece, an experiment in staying closer to Ian Fleming’s novel than in previous pictures, introducing a softer-edged Bond and trying a different actor in the role. There’s very little that’s wrong with it, including the magnificent credits sequence, one of Maurice Binder’s finest with its montage of previous 007 adventures and thumping John Barry theme tune. Soon enough however, Connery was back on board and returned to the larger than life antics reminiscent of his former outings in Diamonds are Forever. It was business as usual, with no mention of Tracy, as though this entry had never happened at all, and it was no better for that omission.

    

Posted on 7th December 2009
Under: 007 | 8 Comments »

‘Good evening’ - Dracula (1979)

In an unfortunate coincidence of release dates, John Badham’s take on Dracula hit USA theatres three months after Love at First Bite. The George Hamilton romp, a playful yarn about the Count finding love in modern New York, was a box office hit, grossing more than $43m in 1979 and placing vampire comedies very much in vogue. What the world didn’t demand was a sober adaptation of material from both the book and the Broadway stage show, which starred Frank Langella as Dracula, but that’s what it got when the Badham movie premiered in July 1979. While it didn’t exactly bomb, the film took around half the gross of Love at First Bite and was considered a commercial failure. Dracula gained ground during the following decade, becoming a massive hit in the VHS rentals market. It remained the most recent screen version of Bram Stoker’s novel until Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish adaptation, which came out in 1992.

'Good evening'Badham’s edition broke with the tradition of Dracula films by concentrating far more on the Count’s sensual qualities. Up to that point, most releases suggested he had a hold over women, but the emphasis had been on his evil, his ability to draw female victims towards him via an ill-defined supernatural hypnosis. Not here. Langella, reprising his stage role for the film, is a highly sexual being. Charismatic and charming, he steals away with the fiance of Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), who never stands a chance. Once the Count takes an interest in her, Lucy (Kate Nelligan) doesn’t look back. The virtuous Jonathan has lost any allure. The film spends some time dwelling on their courtship, one where Dracula is established as being in a league above those around him. You understand why he captivates Lucy. Various perfectly intoned ‘Good evening’s from him and she’s lost to Jonathan for good. Even when the Count dies and Harker believes his power over Lucy has ended, it’s clear from the look in her eyes that the truth is quite different. She’s Dracula’s, and not through the process of turning her into a vampire but via sex. In the film’s solitary sex scene, an abstract, suggestive piece of swirling reds and silhouetted lovers that’s dated rather badly, it’s made clear that he has shown her a good time. How can Jonathan, a slightly ridiculous figure in his Toad-esque Hispano-Suiza, possibly compare?

As with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a great deal of money was invested in this version, disconnecting it from the TV adaptations and Hammer’s cost-cutting offerings that came earlier. Dracula might have lost its Transylvanian opening, but little expense has been spared in recreating pre-World War One England. The production values are from the top drawer, as is the pedigree cast, and the film is topped off with a lustrous score from John Williams. The composer clearly enjoyed providing the music for Dracula, taking as his inspiration Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and riffing on the theme of everlasting love.

The story is rooted in Whitby, North Yorkshire, though the filming was all done in various locations around Cornwall. St Austell doubled as the coastline where the doomed ship carrying Dracula to England is beached. Camelot Castle in Tintagel serves as the Seward residence and mental hospital. Carfax Abbey is in fact the beautiful St Michael’s Mount. The Count gets to work as soon as he’s set foot in England. First, he bewitches the wan and sickly Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis) seemingly because he can, before quickly seeing her off and moving onto Lucy. Poor Mina is little more than starters. In this version, she’s the daughter of Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier, complete with a thick Dutch accent - Francis’s comes and goes, presumably to give the impression of her settling into English society), who arrives at the scene after her death and is the only one with any real inkling of what really befell her.

Van Helsing and Harker wield the crossIn the film’s best scene, and by some distance its scariest, Van Helsing ventures to Mina’s grave to dispatch his daughter, who is now terrorising the community as a vampire. And what a vampire she makes! The Professor comes across an empty coffin, but one that has been ripped apart from within, leading to the labyrinth of mining tunnels below. Van Helsing descends, and in the cramped darkness drops his crucifix in a puddle. As he ferrets for the cross, the waters clear and reveal a nightmare vision of white looking down on him. It’s Mina, returning to her resting place and still wearing the tattered funereal dress she was buried in. He looks up, the full horror of what has become of her dawning on him, and the camera similarly tilts, gradually revealing a putrid, broken skinned demon with black eyes, matted hair, reddened mouth and bloodlust. Between them, Dr Seward (Donald Pleasance) and the Professor put Mina out of her misery, but the pain has told on her father. By all accounts, Olivier was a fan of Peter Cushing’s work in the Hammer Dracula franchise, and the emotional investment his tortured character puts in here gives him the advantage. It’s in his dealings with Langella where the ‘Cushing’ in his performance shines through. These are clever men, natural adversaries, and whilst you get the impression Dracula has some respect for the cross-wielding Professor all he gets in return is academic revulsion.

For audiences, the fate of Mina is proof of Dracula’s evil. He may be a good looking bloke with great hair who wears a cape well, but that’s where his lovemaking gets you, wandering the lonely night as a repellent living corpse. The race is now on to save Lucy from the same end, even as Miss Seward is succumbing to the Count’s seduction. His is a different vampire from the doomed hero played by Gary Oldman. Less openly demonic than Christopher Lee’s Dracula, Langella is nevertheless an empty individual, boasting to Van Helsing and Harker of his power and heritage whilst murdering the unfortunate Renfield (a superb Tony Haygarth) with a contemptuous neck break.

Papa...If there is a fault with Dracula, it is that there are few frights to be had. Apart from the scene detailed above (one I could barely watch when I first saw the film as a child), and the moment where he appears at Mina’s window (upside down, eyes glowing, after crawling down the wall outside), the scariest bits are those depicting Seward’s chaotic hospital, a real home for the mentally broken where screams are commonplace and inmates wander the stairways wearing pigs’ heads and wailing pitifully. I read a comment that Langella was just too handsome to make for an effectively creepy Dracula, and in fairness it wasn’t his brief to terrify the viewers. Though he takes Lucy and Mina, this vampire never bares his teeth, instead upping the smoulder value and leaving it to his brides to do the rest.

Is it even supposed to be scary? What we now savour is the brilliant cast, led by Olivier’s pained Van Helsing and the suffering etched on Eve’s face as he appreciates both what he’s up against and what he’s lost. This is an underrated adaptation, even in the colour-saturated version that has been ubiquitous since the film’s release on laserdisc in 1991. Apparently, Badham had initially intended his movie to be in black and white, in honour of the Universal classic from 1931, and it was only here that he had an opportunity to produce an edition that came close to his vision. Those who recall the warm colours of Dracula’s theatrical release and appearances in the 1980s - the studio (Universal again) deliberately overruling Badham in an attempt to showcase the film’s production values - demand a return to its original form, though there are no plans for a restored version and indeed my copy - the R2/4 DVD produced without a lot of love in 2006 - is as desaturated as they come. But does that really matter, as long as I still have visions of the undead Mina approaching, arms outstretched and the words ‘Papa, komme mit mir’ escaping her broken lips in that little, lost girl’s voice..?

Posted on 30th November 2009
Under: Uncategorized, Horror | 2 Comments »

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