Archive for April, 2009

Hammer Time! Captain Clegg (1962)

DVD has done many good things for the Hammer back catalogue, and the best surely has to be its ability to dust off forgotten films like Captain Clegg and restore them for a new generation of viewers. Tucked away on Side B of the second disc within Universal’s superior The Hammer Horror Series set, Captain Clegg might have none of the lustre that comes with the studio’s Dracula or Frankenstein features but that doesn’t make it inferior. Give it several minutes to warm up and this swashbuckling tale of south coast skullduggery - disguised as horror fare - is incredibly good fun, moves with the pace of a densely layered plot stuffed into 82 minutes, and features some cracking performances.

The Night Creatures ride!The tale of how Captain Clegg made it onto the screen is legend in itself. His story is part of the adventures of the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn, the lead character in a popular series of novels by Russell Thorndike. Anthony Hinds was forced to make changes to his screenplay for the film once it transpired that Disney had bought the rights to adapt Thorndike’s books for the screen, and sure enough the tale was dramatised in a mini-series starring Patrick McGoohan (edited for cinema audiences in the UK). The main amendment in Hammer’s version saw Clegg become Parson Blyss, removing any reference to Dr Syn in the process. The character’s mythology remains, however, almost in its entirety, as does the supporting cast. Some of the dialogue between Blyss and Mipps in the film hints at a back story that could only mean anything to followers of Thorndike’s novels and, as luck would have it, gives Captain Clegg a lot more depth than it might otherwise achieve.

In America, the film was released as Night Creatures, and indeed this is what it’s called on the R1 set. According to its Wiki, Hammer has promised their American distributor a picture based on Richard Matheson’s novel, I am Legend, which would be entitled Night Creatures. They were warned off continuing the project because the subject matter would make it too strong for the certifiers. A contract was a contract, however, and Hammer offered Captain Clegg instead, emphasising the spectres that haunt the marshes in the story in order to justify the title. A shame, as the story was strong enough when focusing on the derring-do of the smugglers. Ultimately, it was this that really differentiated Hammer’s picture from that produced by Disney, the latter released as a straightforward family offering whilst Night Creatures was marketed to a more mature audience.

Parson Blyss... or is he?The ‘night creatures’ - men on horseback wearing skeleton costumes with luminous paint - are actually the weakest element of the film. Of far more interest is the good Parson (Peter Cushing), who in his first scene admonishes his congregation for their half-hearted hymn signing. It’s clear that Cushing is having a whale of a time in this picture. Whether playing the angelic Blyss or flipping his character fluidly to become the leader of the smugglers (and Cushing is subtle enough to make his change look absolutely natural), he’s in imperial form and runs rings around Patrick Allen as the virtuous Captain Collier. Collier is in Romney Marshes to investigate a claim of smuggling but finds next to no evidence. Fortunately for him, the community is flawed enough to give him sufficient motivation to stick around, and then there are the erratic actions of his captive Mulatto (Milton Reid) to consider. Why does the mute giant, who was rendered so and left for dead by Clegg, take such a deadly interest in the Parson? What lies behind the legend of the marsh creatures? Something’s not right, whether it’s in the scarecrow that appears to be in various places at once, and might even make the occasional gesture, or the bottles of fine wine that turn up in the cabinets of the Parson and the spineless Squire (Derek Frances).

In reality, all Collier ever needed to do was look into the background of Imogene (Yvonne Romain), the village tavern’s serving wench. Nobody that exotic should be anywhere near the Suffolk coast and there’s an easy connection between her and Clegg - alleged to be hanged and then buried in the churchyard - that any investigator worth his salt would explore. But not Collier. Like much of the audience, he sees Imogene as nothing more than eye candy, lovely eye candy for sure but that’s where her story ends. Or does it?

The square-jawed Captain CollierNeither does Collier bother much with the Squire’s son, Harry (Oliver Reed), Imogene’s lover and a key member of the smugglers. Reed is fantastic in Captain Clegg. Even though his role is that of a callow youth, the young gun to Clegg’s old hand, the actor has far too much smouldering intensity to be boring. Watching Reed in these early roles, it’s clear why he still commanded so much attention during his ‘Wild Thing’ years. The charismatic talent was there. Bags of it. Of the remaining cast, Michael Ripper is his usual likeable self, thoroughly enjoying himself as Mipps, a jolly jack-tar if ever there was one. Everyone knows that Hammer films are onto a winner when Ripper ‘rips’ up the stage. The man gives a full-blooded turn, as ever. And then there’s Collier, who is turned into a surprisingly sympathetic character by Allen. Despite his squarest of jaws, the good Captain has some depth in the hands of this fine actor whose brief was surely just to make a two-dimensional authority figure of his part.

The smugglers’ attempts to dodge the authorities are what make this movie such good, roister-doistering fun. In one scene, a villager sends Collier’s entire company deep into Romney Marshes on a search for the night creatures, a diversion while his mates arrange a shipment of continental wine. It’s so high-spirited that you could forget smuggling was nothing like the knockabout high jinks portrayed here and personified in Mipps’s easy laughter. There’s nothing of the desperate cut-throatery of real life where these fellows are concerned. The smugglers are the good guys, and if there is a concern that we aren’t cheering them on enough it transpires Clegg is doing it all to put money back into the community, stealing from the rich - the government - and giving to the poor. Bless.

But then, Hammer’s mandate was rarely to offer a slice of gritty, hard life in their work but rather to entertain, and Captain Clegg delivers on that front. It might have been forgotten if not for the efforts of a group of loving restorers, and it’s certainly deemed to be among the lesser works of the studio’s catalogue, but the film represents nothing less than Hammer at its considerable creative peak.

   

Posted on 22nd April 2009
Under: Hammer | 2 Comments »

‘Shaken, not Stirred’ - You Only Live Twice (1967)

‘Darling, I give you very best duck.

In You Only Live Twice, SPECTRE have their headquarters in a hollowed out volcano, complete with a retractable fake lake. The scheme involves playing off the Russians and Americans against each other in the space race by pretending to be ‘the other side’ and sending a shuttle off into the heavens to literally swallow satellites that are already out there. Watching it all happen, I was left thinking about how much their subversive antics would have cost and concluding that surely the money was better spent elsewhere. Come to think of it, if Blofeld aka #1 saw James Bond as such a threat, why didn’t he just divert a few million into some account that would pay for endless assassins, and keep hiring them until the job was done? After all, even 007 must sleep sometimes. They’d get him, if they really tried.

You only live twice posterBut then, looking beneath YOLT to find any sense of what’s going on is virtually impossible. By now, the Bond movie franchise had moved so far from its literary roots that very little beside the book titles remained of Ian Fleming’s source material. 007 himself was less a spy and more a kind of superhero, strolling out of danger with his suit uncreased and hair in place, an appropriate quip about the only acknowledgement he’d make that anything had in fact happened. In other words, it’s pure fantasy, comic book fare. Roald Dahl was given two rules before he went off to write the screenplay - (i) it has to be set in Japan (ii) SPECTRE’s base has to be inside a volcano, and the resulting script is a wild and crazy thing. Dahl truly lets rip on the narrative, including helicopters equipped with enormous magnets that can lift a car off the ground and Bond being disguised as a Japanese peasant for almost no reason at all.

For me, the movie is a guilty pleasure. I know that YOLT is a load of hogwash. I know that it probably should have suffered for Sean Connery’s half-hearted playing of the title role, let alone the flat disappointment of Donald Pleasance’s turn as Blofeld (previously an anonymous figure who was never seen by the audience). I know that this entry more than any other Bond film provided the material for Mike Myers’s Austin Powers trilogy. But I love it. Accepting YOLT for what it is, and ignoring the fact that the genuinely brilliant From Russia with Love was just three movies ago, it soon becomes clear that the producers wanted their audiences to have nothing more than good, knockabout fun with what was taking place on the screen and I think it achieves that.

The first big plus point comes with John Barry’s score. I haven’t discussed Barry’s work in too much detail when covering the previous Bond films. There’s a reason for that, and it is the sheer bodacity he brings to this movie. In places, YOLT’s score is like a mix of all the best bits from the previous outings. The Bond theme itself makes a welcome return as 007 fights enemy helicopters. Elsewhere, Barry comes up with an Orient-inspired title song, which features the beautiful tones of Nancy Sinatra, and then there’s ‘Capsule in Space,’ a rather gorgeous concoction of wonder and terror that accompanies shots of American and Russian satellites being swallowed up by SPECTRE vessels.

Sean Connery in convincing Japanese disguiseIt’s widely believed that Lewis Gilbert made a fairly pedestrian fist at directing YOLT. Fortunately, he had Oscar-winning cinematographer, Freddie Young, on his staff, which means the film never looks less than gorgeous. You see Young’s hand in some of the early scenes, indulgent, expansive shots of Japan at sunset with orange skies framing the vista. Lovely stuff. Equally ravishing are the scenes where Bond flies over the countryside in Little Nellie. Below, Japan’s volcanic regions are lusciously framed and worthy of any travelogue. Elsewhere, the blistering script and high production values mean that all Gilbert really has to do is point the camera and shoot. YOLT is no director’s picture. Rarely is a great deal of imagination put into its composition, though there’s one effective shot where Bond is racing across a roof, pursued by many baddies, and the camera simply pans back to take a passive, bird’s eye view of the action.

In terms of its story, YOLT is forgettable; indeed the plot seems to have been set up to string together grand set pieces. At no point is it the most coherent piece of work, beginning with the pre-credits moment where Bond is ‘killed’ so that SPECTRE will stop pursuing him and thus allow him to infiltrate their plans undetected. Are there no other agents who could do this? Besides which, 007 doesn’t waste any time in getting himself noticed once he sets foot in Japan (after being fired out of a frickin’ submarine in the general direction of the Japanese coast, presumably somewhere near Tokyo because that’s where he pops up next), so what was the point exactly? Similar craziness comes later in the infamous scene where Bond is disguised as a Japanese peasant. Naturally, he leaves what is made out to be a lengthy process of prosthetic application (performed by girls wearing bikinis!) looking pretty much exactly the same as before, nor does there turn out to be any good reason for the work in the first place. By the time he’s made his way into SPECTRE’s volcanic HQ, the disguise mysteriously disappears, maybe out of sheer embarassment. In any event, this hasn’t stopped the scene from being lampooned to death, most effectively in Team America.

SPECTRE's baseFor all the criticism, once YOLT reveals its grandest effect - Blofeld’s hollowed out volcano, which cost anything over $1m to build at Pinewood studios - all is forgiven. It’s a superb set, produced on a vast scale, and demonstrated the producers’ commitment to spectacle over gritty realism. They had a point. The takings for Thunderball were such that audiences clearly wanted to see things to make their jaws drop and the sheer imagination that went into designing SPECTRE’s headquarters must have done just that. What made it even more gripping was knowing that the whole thing would be destroyed, Bond living to fight another day.

Only in this instance, Bond would indeed live but in a different guise. Connery made it clear during production that this would be his last turn as the spy, and even though the sentiment turned out to be premature, it made the hype surrounding YOLT all the more frenetic. What drove him to hang up the Walther PPK remains something of a mystery. The official line was the sheer level of hounding that Connery suffered at the hands of the media whenever he was filming as Bond. By all accounts, he enjoyed little to no privacy, though further causes could have been the way the character was changing into an invulnerable superhero, the lack of effort he had to put in as an actor when people turned up to see the sets, effects and locations, coupled with sheer boredom. There was certainly a point where this argument was concerned. By now, the franchise was developing into a circus attraction, a visually impressive fantasy ahead of such secondary elements as plot and character development. And ironically, YOLT turned out to be nothing like the box office bonanza that Thunderball had produced. With a new Bond came a fresh approach to the material, a back to basics effort that would turn the agent back into a human being. Of sorts.

   

Posted on 4th April 2009
Under: 007 | 1 Comment »

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