Archive for January, 2011

‘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 »

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