Archive for December, 2010

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
Under: Hammer | No Comments »

‘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 »

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