Archive for the 'Classics' Category

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 »

The Best-Loved Bandit of all Time!

Two worlds collided for me on telly the other week when Russell Crowe turned up in Sky’s commentary box at Lord’s, fresh from a day’s filming of Robin Hood and present to watch the Aussies achieve a rare collapse against England. A bemused Nasser Hussain clearly didn’t know what to say to the actor, who is renowned for kicking off at a single wrong word yet turned out to be a rather affable figure who was happy to discuss his love for cricket. Either Nasser didn’t press, Crowe wasn’t talking or it was considered to be an unsuitable topic for the Ashes, but the details of his current film project didn’t crop up much. Robin Hood, as directed by Ridley Scott, is still very much in production and details on it are scarce, but by all accounts it’s an affair for revisionists, imagining the folklore character as an avenging angel who, along with the Sheriff of Nottingham is a fervent believer in the dead Richard the Lionheart’s dream of England and is prepared to fight to preserve it.

The Adventures DVD coverHopefully, it won’t go the same way as the insipid King Arthur, the 2004 attempt to reconfigure the legendary monarch along more historically likely lines, which sounds good but produced a dull film from material that should be just about impossible to fail with. Scott has a real opportunity to create a genuinely fresh perspective on Hood, whose story been filmed many times and nearly always portrays him as the classic, noble-hearted hero who steals from the rich and, well, you know the rest. One of my favourite versions is the HTV television series from the 1980s, perhaps because it was the one I grew up with but also due to its heavy use of mythology, of setting Robin up as a hero of ages whose burden is to do right for the timeless land. True, Michael Praed looked like a L’Oreal commercial in forest green, but he was well supported by the likes of Ray Winstone as a gritty Will Scarlett, whilst Nickolas Grace made for a superb, unbalanced Sheriff.

It’s perhaps a shame for Grace that his take on the character was so effortlessly overshadowed by Alan Rickman, just about the only good thing in the otherwise terrible Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves from 1991. Rickman’s Sheriff is a glorious ham, a pantomime villain who lights up the screen whenever he’s on it, though this is partly because the rest of it goes on and on through its tired motions, all Costner vehicle and that bloody Bryan Adams song that was number one for the entire summer I was home from University, and as we know University summers last a long time. Of the rest, I have a soft spot for the 1976 Richard Lester film, Robin and Marian, starring Sean Connery as an ageing hero who returns from the Crusades to try and win Marian’s (Audrey Hepburn) heart one last time. Is this even a Robin Hood film in the truest sense? The characters are present and correct, but it’s about quite a different thing from the usual fare and its closing scene is heartbreaking. On a quite different tangent is the recent BBC series, which portrays Robin as a Hollyoaks character who has stumbled into the twelfth century to fight Lily Allen’s dad and a bloke who has a penchant for eyeliner and dresses as a gimp. My son loved it. He’s 9, and I suspect he was the target audience for just this sort of nonsense.

In reality though, the version any new movie finds itself squaring up to is The Adventures of Robin Hood, made in 1938 and available on a spiffing, two-disc DVD. Scott’s production will no doubt be an entirely different animal from the Errol Flynn starrer, but that’s no bad thing considering there’s very little that can match the sheer joie de vivre of the latter, while it would be sheer folly to try and recreate its sense of innocent fun for more cynical audiences. The Adventures has stamped its authority on cinema as a supreme example of how to get matinee movies absolutely right. It was an enormous hit with contemporary audiences, a marvel in Technicolor, whilst its Oscars for Art Direction, Editing and Music showed it hit all the correct notes with critics technically (it was also nominated for Best Picture). It’s still an absolute pleasure to watch, to melt in the luscious score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, admire the ravishing use of colour and the way Flynn’s easy charm juxtaposes beautifully with the acting chops of Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains as Sir Guy and Prince John respectively.

Baz and Errol sort it outTo appreciate The Adventures fully on DVD, you are invited to watch it as part of Warner Night at the Movies, a delicious ensemble of supporting features that reflects how contemporary cinema audiences would have enjoyed the experience. This starts with a trailer for Angels with Dirty Faces, the sort of flick that Warner was better associated with, before offering some vintage newsreel footage. The items on display concern a custom-built miniature tank for machine gunners, which looks horribly uncomfortable for its passengers, and a piece on Nazi Germany’s Anschluss with Austria, complete with ominous music. An eleven-minute music short follows, which features a series of quick-fire pieces by Freddie Rich and his Orchestra. My heart sank when I saw this coming on, but it happened to be lovely fare. Particularly memorable is the rendition of Loch Lomond sung by Nan Wynn who doesn’t sound as though she would recognise the Loch if she fell in it but gives a sweet performance nonetheless. The final support is Katnip Kollege, a Looney Tunes cartoon about the School of Swingology (just down the corridor from Zoology) in which the class dunce eventually gets the beat and woos a Betty Boo-esque dame. Altogether, it’s a deliberately twee and nicely compiled body of work, and shows just how different the 1930s moviegoing experience was from the corporate ads-trailers-feature routine we get today. All that’s missing is the opening and shutting curtains, and usherettes selling choc ices and Cornettoes at the front of the stalls.

The Adventures opens with some exposition about the oppression of Saxons by their Norman overlords, before moving on to Sir Guy catching Much (Herbert Mundin) as he kills one of the king’s deer. The bloodthirsty knight is all for killing Much as he stands, but fortunately Robin just happens to be in the area with his friend, Will Scarlett (Pattric Knowles, the one wearing, er scarlet) and he quickly sees off the ruffians. It isn’t long before Robin has got on the wrong side of Prince John, an oily regent who is plotting to usurp King Richard’s throne as the monarch is being held to an impossibly high ransom by the Emperor of Austria. Though impressed with Robin’s general roister doisterousness, the Prince vows to do away with his status as a focal point for all undermined Saxons, outlawing him, though this only serves the purpose of making him even more of a figurehead. Richard’s ransom also gives John an opportunity to raise more cash, though it’s obvious this is going straight into the Royal Treasury than for its public purpose, and the Saxons are squeezed further for taxes. Ultimately, people gather to Robin. As well as the well known Merry Men, like Little John (Alan Hale, who took the same part in the 1922 and 1950 Hood films) and Friar Tuck (a dry-witted Eugene Pallette), the outlaw puts together an army of Saxon outlaws, who turn Sherwood Forest into a fortress of manned branches and sliding poles made from vines. Shortly after, he kidnaps and humiliates a seething Sir Guy and also comes across Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), who is initially repulsed by him yet comes around once she realises his cause is just.

Marian asks why Robin is blending into the backgroundOne of the film’s many pleasures is that it takes a complicated story about the difficult relations between Saxons and Normans in an England ruled with iron by the latter, and makes it easy. In part, this is because the Norman rulers are so obviously the bad guys, self servers all whilst the noble Anglo-Saxons are reduced to serfs. Robin becomes an easy man to follow. In the lead role, Flynn oozes charisma, even though his inclination to throw his head back and laugh heartily comes across as more than a little theatrical. It’s amazing to think that the part was initially intended for James Cagney, then the biggest star in the Warner stable, whilst Flynn was just on the rise thanks to his fine turn in Captain Blood yet didn’t appear to be the obvious man for the job until he donned the green tights. Born in Tasmania and capable of speaking like a perfect English gentleman, Flynn was in fact at an ideal age and point in his career to play Robin. His lusty take on the part is sublime, particularly as it quickly becomes clear that he can’t die - even when Sir Guy captures him - and there’s a resulting tongue in cheek element to his turn that’s just irresistible.

Flynn had already appeared in films with his co-star, de Havilland, in two productions prior to Robin Hood. Still several years away from becoming dissatisfied with the parts offered to her by Warner, de Havilland makes for a comely Maid. She has one of the hardest roles in the film as the sole character who changes sides during its events. Whilst everyone else is either typecast easily as a goodie (Saxon) or villainous Norman, she starts as a haughty Norman ward before slowly being won around by Robin. Considering the simplicity of the script, she actually makes this process look quite natural and organic, though once on the outlaws’ side she’s there for keeps. The scene where she demonstrates to Robin that she can chew on mutton in the traditional way is absolutely sweet.

As for the villains, Rains is excellent as Prince John. Machiavellian and shrewd, he’s every inch the John we grew up reading about in stories, the wheeler dealer who is fine as a cloak and dagger usurper yet collapses once the chips are down. His henchmen are Rathbone as a suitably nasty Sir Guy, and Melville Cooper who provides some significant comic relief as the Sheriff. I think Rathbone is quite the best thing in The Adventures. A superb swordsman who only ever hints at the assiduous intelligence he clearly possesses, he has in many ways a thankless task as the black-hearted Norman knight but is electrifying whenever he’s on the screen thanks to a suave cool that only occasionally erupts.  

Guess which of these is Will ScarlettThe action moves quickly; the set pieces winning and inspired by the 1922 version starring an athletic Douglas Fairbanks who performed many of his own stunts. It’s set amidst a Sherwood Forest that appears in glorious, lustrous tones. An early instance of three-strip Technicolor, the film must have looked a real treat in 1938 when the use of colour in movies was largely an experimental process that didn’t always work and was still viewed essentially as a gimmick in order to get bums on seats. Not here. The forest looks gorgeous, due in part to technicians who sprayed the foliage to make it show up better on the film. Even better are the scenes shot against a setting sun, shown principally when the Normans are torturing Saxons against a ravishing, blood-red backdrop. On the DVD set, an hour-long documentary on the Technicolor process is far more fascinating than alluded to here. The sheer painstaking dirge for everyone involved in the film as a consequence of using Technicolor turned out to be entirely worth it, yet getting everything to look right was a tough call for the cast and crew, as explained in the feature. Colour is something we take for granted now, but back then it was new and special, and The Adventures must take some credit for promoting its usage.

For their Sherwood Forest, the production team used Bidwell Park in Chico, California. Pasadena’s Busch Gardens doubled as the site for Prince John’s archery tournament. Original director, William Keighley, was removed by Hal B Walls once it became clear the film needed to be more exciting. At the time, Michael Curtiz was available. The Hungarian born director was a veteran of adventure films, including Captain Blood, and once hired turned The Adventures into the swashbuckling affair it would eventually be renowned for. Everything clicked, seemingly by happy accident, a not untraditional story of a sometimes troubled production that somehow worked out for the best. Key to its standing was a substantial return on its production costs. The Adventures ended up putting Warner out of pocket by over $2m, an extravagant sum for its time even though every penny can be seen on the screen. Fortunately, it was an unambiguous success at the box office, making around $4m in its first year and more with subsequent rereleases.

And it’s easy to see why. The Adventures is quite simply an excellent piece of work, put together with care and love, and with only joy for its audience. True, it’s a simple-hearted yarn about good versus evil, one in which both sides are painted with broad, unmistakeable brushstrokes, but it’s told so winningly and with such lavish production values that there just isn’t anything about it that’s not likeable. Even to 2009 viewers, it has enormous entertainment value for viewers of all ages, looks great and never takes itself too seriously. A more perfect use of just under 98 minutes of my life I would struggle to find.

Posted on 27th July 2009
Under: Classics | No Comments »

‘It will burn itself into your memory forever!’

The 1935 Fox Film Corporation production of Dante’s Inferno cost just under $750k to make. It featured two actors who were due to be among Hollywood’s biggest stars - Spencer Tracy and Rita Hayworth - along with future Oscar winner, Claire Trevor. Production values were high, the movie boasting some spectacular sets and special effects, and it also carried a relevant message for its Depression era audience. Yet the Inferno is largely forgotten, a footnote in the careers of people who went on to bigger and better things. It’s unavailable on DVD, with no plans for a release (I caught it on Sky Movies Classics), neither it seems any great demand. One for completists only, perhaps for Tracy fans who want to see what ‘Spence’ was up to before he moved to MGM and became a star, or maybe those fulfilling a wish to catch Hayworth’s debut performance, back when she was billed as Rita Cansino and put in a brief yet memorable cameo as a breezy dancer.

Actually, it isn’t at all difficult to work out the reasons for the Inferno’s obscurity. The film isn’t a very good one, with its ‘club you around the head’ moralising that soon becomes rather condescending. The action follows Jim Carter (Tracy), a down on his luck grifter who happens upon Pop McWade’s (Henry B Walthall) carnival concession, Dante’s Inferno. Despite the impressive interiors and artwork of the attraction, Pop can’t pay people to enter and it’s Carter’s natural showmanship that winds up putting bums on seats. Instead of mimicking Pop’s promotion of the Inferno as a lesson in how to be good, Carter emphasises its lurid, sensationalist aspects, which naturally works with the public. Soon, he’s made enough money to buy a larger plot and build a bigger inferno, but in doing so he screws over several of his ‘carnie’ colleagues and passes a blind eye over the health and safety concerns surrounding the attraction. The bigger, better Inferno is now all about profit, the bottom line. Carter has lost his way, and only Pop - who keeps his job as the Virgil-esque tour guide - can see it.

Dante's InfernoSo far, so Selznick, and there’s plenty in the film to keep fans of cheap morality pieces happy. Things really tip over the edge for Carter when he plugs all his money into a pleasure liner, one that promises to be a voyage of endless decadence and pleasure seeking for its high-rolling guests. But the ship is highly unsafe, and he knows it. By this point, his wife Betty (Trevor) has left him, taking their son with her as a consequence of his unscrupulous nature, yet he hasn’t learned a thing, even after Pop shows him what Dante envisaged hell to be like for unrepentant sinners.

It’s this latter element that makes up the high point of the film, a nine-minute tour of the inferno that is described by Leslie Halliwell as ‘one of the most unexpected, imaginative and striking pieces of cinema in Hollywood’s history.’ Inspired by Dante Alighieri’s cantica from The Divine Comedy, the movie changes tone entirely for the duration of the vision, a wordless glimpse into various recesses of hell where the damned linger and are punished. These include scenes of near-naked people throwing themselves into the fiery abyss, suicides who now grope the air pathetically as branches of gnarled trees, the misers in life who are now forced to shift vast boulders for eternity, heretics being crushed by the weight of their own tombstones, fire and brimstone pouring over exposed blasphemers, and so on.

If these scenes appear utterly at odds with the rest of the movie, then it’s possibly because according to some sources the footage comes from an earlier piece, the 1924 edition of Dante’s Inferno directed by Henry Otto that until recently was considered to be lost. Gothic in nature and vast in scope, the grim despair and strange, otherworldly beauty of hell does appear to have been ripped from a different film, and it would be easy to believe this was the case. Aside from some lingering shots on Carter’s pleasure liner of revellers that cleverly mirror the hell scenes (though they’re being about something entirely different), the vision is completely inconsistent with the tone of the overall piece and somewhat superior in terms of its quality. It’s been suggested that the film’s terrible depiction of the afterlife was inspired by the German expressionism that could be found everywhere in the 1920s, yet there’s little of Metropolis’s jutting skyscrapers or the crazy, surreally angled buildings of Dr Cagliari on display here. Rather, it’s reminiscent of the woodcut artwork of Gustave Dore, who produced a series of works in the nineteenth century based on scenes from Dante’s poem.

Dante's InfernoThe film’s director, Harry Lachman, started out as a painter, having emigrated to Paris in 1911 and gaining a reputation as part of the post-impressionist movement. After getting involved in film, first as a set designer within the French film industry, Lachman moved back to America as an established director and was eventually given the job of putting Dante’s Inferno onto the screen. A fan of Dore, it’s clear to see the engraver’s work in the movie’s hell scenes, while it’s also possible to detect the director letting his own artistic vision reign free over these sequences. According to the New York Times, the film employed 3,000 extras - all toned, muscular bodies, which perhaps wasn’t what Dante had in mind when he first put his image to paper but at least ensured that the damned looked good in their tiny loincloths - and an army of technicans to bring Lachman’s terrifying vision to life.

So who did create these scenes? Were they culled from an earlier production, slotted into an otherwise simple-minded yarn where the ‘good’ are those with the least selfish dreams? Or did they come from Lachman, who was allowed to make these visions as he wanted to whilst being saddled elsewhere with a pedestrian affair? Nobody seems to agree, and there are compelling arguments for either side. Neither does it really matter. Otto’s 1924 film survives on a few remaining prints at the film archive of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The 1935 version has been largely consigned to history, dusted off occasionally for a matinee screening on a backwater of the Sky Movie channels and unavailable for purchase.

Only, it does matter. Though much of the film is forgettable nonsense, the hell scenes are an incredible vision and live on in the inspiration they offered to later film makers. They’re present in the hellish chaos of the Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia, through to Vincent Ward’s romantic fable about the afterlife, What Dreams May Come, and Lars von Trier’s upcoming Antichrist, besides making their mark on just about every subsequent depiction of hell on screen. Perhaps this imaginative legacy means the film deserves better.

Posted on 19th July 2009
Under: Classics | 3 Comments »

‘To a new world of gods and monsters!’

WARNING - THIS ARTICLE PRETTY MUCH GIVES AWAY THE ENTIRE PLOT OF THE MOVIES!

One of the many Bride postersIronically, I bought The Bride of Frankenstein in a DVD pack alongside Frankenstein for £4.99, as a promotional effort geared towards Van Helsing. With the latter serving as an homage to the classic Universal monster movies, rereleasing the old things in cheap, accessible double bills was a great thing to do, only they happen to be far superior to the Hugh Jackman affair, which by most standards was somewhat underwhelming. Not only could Helsing’s director, Stephen Sommers, have learned something from watching these movies again, but their budget price availability brought them home to a new generation of viewers. Whether you find the horror flicks of the 1930s to be defined by their tameness or their contemporary power, you can’t really call yourselves fans of the genre if you haven’t soaked them up at some point. Alongside the likes of Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman and their mates, ‘Franky’ stands as a template for most horror movies that have followed. You can see its influence in nearly everything, from the cheapest nasty through to £100m blockbusters. And of those classic monsters, Frankenstein’s monster remains the most powerful.

Both movies were based on Mary Shelley’s novel, the gothic bestseller that has its mythical roots in a contest between Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and herself whilst holidaying, an attempt to see who could come up with the scariest yarn. Mary’s tale, about the moral horrors of dabbling with creation, effortlessly beat the lads, and went on to become a favourite not only of readers, but also those looking for a good story to be adapted for the theatre. By the time James Whale made the now definitive 1931 version, it had been doing its rounds on the stage for some years, and various silent efforts for the screen were already gathering dust.

Yet for all that, Frankenstein the novel is hardly an obvious source for all this attention. It’s a good read, but the scares take some time to arrive, and in fact it works much better as a philosophical poser than as straight horror. In the book, the creature is most certainly not the real monster. Reviled by its maker almost as soon as he brings it to life, the luckless thing finds itself shunned and wandering the local forests, scaring everyone who comes across its path until by chance it is taken in by a blind hermit desperate for company. As a result, it learns to speak, and eventually confronts Frankenstein to demand from him a mate. With the threat of danger to his own fiance hanging over him, the scientist returns to his research and indeed creates a woman, only the thought of these creatures propagating detests him to the extent that he destroys it before it gets a chance to live. The fiance then dies at the hands of the creature, exactly as he grimly promised. What follows is a spiral of self-destruction as both creator and creation dance around each other, one demanding the other’s obliteration, the second unable to understand its own existence.

The immediate loathing that strikes every character who sees the monster seems to have been the reason for all the plays and films. Everyone loves a good scare and make-up maestros worked their socks off to knock out creations that could inspire ever greater degrees of revulsion. Quite often however, the aim of the producers was simply to frighten their audiences, to turn the monster into a mindless killing machine. Whale’s film was the first to take a different approach.

The big man himselfIt was released in 1931, on the back of the box office winner, Dracula. That movie’s star, Bela Lugosi, was originally scheduled to play the monster, but turned down the role because of the lashings of make-up involved. It instead went to little-known English actor, Boris Karloff, whose gaunt, angular features were perfect for bringing out the deathly, pallid visage of the monster. In the movie, he doesn’t put in an appearance for thirty minutes or so. Until that point, the narrative concerns itself with Henry (Victor in the novel - no idea why it’s changed) Frankenstein, a brilliant young scientist who has been shunned by the community for his blasphemous belief in the ability to produce artificial life. Played by stage star Colin Clive, he’s a study in barely suppressed dementia, a genius who is forced to rob graves to provide body parts for his creation. Eventually, he strikes gold. On a visually stunning stormy night, the monster lies under sheets and bandages, waiting for the final spark of life. A burst of lightning is the key, the sudden electrical energy that is the secret of animation. Amidst Frankenstein’s laboratory, a playground of machinery, flashing lights and crackles and hums, the monster’s fingers move, and with a triumphant cry the doctor declares he knows what it’s like to be God.

The next we see of Henry, he’s having a satisfied smoke and looking decidedly pleased with himself. Confronted with his former University professor, he reveals his creation for the very first time. Painfully slowly, wringing out every last knot of tension, the monster enters the room, shuffling in backwards, so that the camera can linger on him as it turns around to face us. We all know what we’re going to see, but imagine it’s 1931 and you don’t have all those other horror movie precedents to cushion the shock. Lifeless eyes stare out from a heavy brow, thin lips stark against pale, alabaster skin, and above the scar running along its forehead is the flat head, mottled with limp black hair that barely covers the stitches. It’s a horrific sight, designed to repulse, and later the monster’s attitude seems to match its cruel visage by killing Frankenstein’s assistant and going on the rampage. It turns out the same assistant had been teasing it with fire before it turned on him. And then we see Frankenstein’s look of terror as he is informed the prized brain he stole for the monster is that of a sub-intelligent criminal. Oh dear…

But the monster itself is an innocent. It plays with a little girl for a moment, tossing flowers into a lake with her, before it unwittingly throws her in after them, not knowing what’s going on as she drowns. The scene was considered so hard going by the censors of the time that it was cut out, only being restored much later. In the original edit, we see the monster and girl larking around in one scene; the next shows her father carrying her dead body through the streets. It’s enough to assemble an angry mob of villagers, wielding the vintage pitchforks and torches and determined for retribution. It’s joined by Frankenstein himself, who’s just as keen to destroy his creation. He has seen the monster almost kill his own bride, Elizabeth, and is thus persuaded it has to go. The crowds pursue it to an old mill, but not before it captures the doctor himself. In a final act of pathos, as the mill is being burned to the ground it throws Frankenstein to a fiery death and then falls itself, presumably gone for good.

Or has it? The success of Frankenstein brought demands for a sequel, though Whale himself was far from enthusiastic to be involved again. The same was true for Karloff, who didn’t miss the hours of preparation before each day’s filming. His was a painful experience, partly from having to act in weighed down boots to give him a lumbering gait, also after a scene in which he had to carry Frankenstein and damaged his back. Money however talked the loudest. The production team were handed a considerably larger budget to come up with the follow-up, a sequel that would fly in the face of conventional wisdom by being far superior to its predecessor.

The 1931 original remains a true classic, and much imitated in later years, but it’s by no means perfect. For one thing, it moves slowly, taking as much time as possible before revealing the monster, which increased the anticipation at the time, but surely has current viewers watching the clock. It’s clear also that the first sight of the monster - artfully done, with successive shots moving in closer to Karloff’s dead face - is its biggest treat. Once that’s out of the way, the narrative moves to a quite obvious conclusion, whilst it’s never fully clear why the doctor doesn’t take a more protective role over his creation. He’s persuaded quickly enough that it’s a bad thing and that he must abandon it, despite all that work putting it together in the first place. Like everyone else, by the end he wants nothing more than its destruction.

All the same, it’s a masterly work in terms of technical production. The lighting is superb, the acting consistently good. Frankenstein’s laboratory looks great, and of course the amazing make-up work done to create the monster itself is the stuff of legend. What Bride does is take these elements, throws in a gripping story and adds humour to produce what may be the great horror film of them all.

It opens by taking us back to the moment after the novel was first written. Byron and Shelley are both spellbound by Mary’s work, and make a big fuss over the fact that - in their terms - such a pretty thing can conjure up a book as frightful as Frankenstein. She explains that the story doesn’t end with the twin deaths of creator and creation. Taking us through a brief recap of earlier events, she begins the story at the very point the last one ended. Frankenstein’s supposedly dead body is pulled from the wreckage and carted off to his stately home. In the meantime, the parents of the first movie’s murdered girl determine to ensure the monster is gone. It hasn’t. As luck would have it, the creature dropped into an underground cavern, and makes short work of both mother and father before shuffling off into the wild once again.

Pretorius's little freakshowWe don’t see much of the monster for a while. The story picks up with Henry, who recovers from his near death experience, and nobly vows to Elizabeth that this is the end of all his experiments. He should be so lucky. Enter Doctor Pretorios, played with a unique combination of sinister campness by Ernest Thesiger. Pretorios has been working along similar lines to Frankenstein, and now wants to collaborate with him on creating a mate for the monster. At first, the Baron wants nothing to do with it, but Pretorios persuades him with a mixture of threats and tapping into his desires to improve on his work. There’s a comic moment where Pretorios demonstrates the results of his own science, as a number of miniature humans are revealed, living in jars and dressed up as kings, queens and wizards. At one point, the king escapes from his bottle and attempts to woo the queen, before he’s picked up and dumped unceremoniously back.

At first, Frankenstein is willing to share his knowledge, and the pair work together on a new creation. They’re assisted by two grisly heavies (as opposed to hunchback Fritz who worked alone in part one), whose duties consist of finding bodies to be used. This mainly involves robbing graves, but they’re not averse to killing the odd citizen themselves if needs be.

We then cut back to the monster, who is wandering through a lush forest. The music joining it is light and cheery, like it’s the start of a new and better chapter for the misunderstood creature. In a marked contrast to the first episode, the monster discovers a young woman drowning, and pulls her out of the water to safety. Her reaction? The usual abject horror. Her cries bring the mob back, and this time they catch the monster, tying it to a stake and later locking it up in a prison cell. But normal bars can’t hold a monster such as this. Within moments, it has broken free, torn through the village and returns to the wild.

Is there any hope for the monster, who by now could be forgiven for developing a complex? Clearly, it’s a ‘he’ by now, as it takes on greater human attributes, and at one point comes close to knowing happiness. Chancing across a house in the thick of the forest, the monster learns it belongs to a blind old man living by himself. By chance, the man wants exactly the same things as the creature - companionship, and pretty soon, they’re shacked up together, enjoying food, wine, and what looks to me like a decent-sized spliff. The reaction to smoking on the monster’s face suggests as much, in any case. Most importantly, ‘he’ learns speech, something Karloff was quite opposed to, though he was wrong - the monster is suddenly even more human, an important element to his character as he remains a fugitive. His bliss can’t last. Hunters arrive at the cottage, and upon sight of the monster chase him back into the woods. Alone again, he stumbles through what else but a graveyard shrouded in mist. One gravestone is a crucifix, which carries enough obvious images for the viewer, but the more revealing one is a grim figure of Death. However much the creature wants peace and friendship, he will always be associated with death, and we see him disappear in a catacomb.

But he isn’t alone. Pretorios and the henchmen are removing corpses, and as the latter take their coffins away, the doctor remains, enjoying lunch on top of a sarcophagus. Enticed by the sight of wine and the smell of cigar smoke, the monster is lured out. Pretorios doesn’t shrink. He shows not the mildest concern as he shares his table. These unlikely allies are about to learn that working together is very good for them, as meanwhile Frankenstein is having big doubts. His initial enthusiasm for the scheme has passed, and his own morals are telling him that once is enough, twice quite ridiculous. Unfortunately, he isn’t given the chance to turn aside. Pretorios kidnaps Elizabeth with the monster’s help, and they both force Frankenstein to complete his work… or else.

Don't fancy yours muchWe then move back to the laboratory. As before, everything happens in a Gothic tower, somewhere on a remote hilltop. In a mirror of the first movie, the doctors go through the routine of bringing the bride to life, amidst equipment that is spectacular enough to suggest the process of doing so is well beyond the average human mind. And give her life they do. Frankenstein and Pretorios prepare the bride, fitting a white dress around her, letting her totter around a little. Unlike the monster, she actually looks like a piece of work. Elsa Lanchester played her, in a curious parallel to her other role in the film, that of Mary Shelley herself. Despite her now famous jerky head movements and wild black hair pouring from her head, complete with white streak, she’s very nearly a vision, and a clear inspiration for Marge Simpson. She makes a step towards Frankenstein, as though he’s the one she’s intended for, but life isn’t that perfect. The monster comes into view. He’s attracted. She, like nearly everyone else he’s come across, is revolted, letting out a clipped cry of horror as he approaches. In one of the film’s best moments, he tries to sit with her, and stroke her hand. It’s not going to happen. The bride stares at what is holding her, lets out another wail and at that point the monster seems to know that whatever else might happen, he isn’t going to find a female companion. In his eyes, it’s better to die than live alone, hunted and despised. He allows Frankenstein to escape, but sends Pretorios and his bride - who hisses at him, catlike, as though he hasn’t endured enough of her disgust - to hell by destroying the laboratory. The last we see is Henry and Elizabeth running away as the tower collapses in on itself.

The film’s production is superb. With his lavish budget, Whale was able to create a much larger world for his story than in the first movie, and we never see where the money goes better than in the climax, in Pretorios’s funfair of a laboratory. In terms of effects, it’s a world away from the rest of the era. The scene with the miniatures is smooth, beautifully conceived and doesn’t clash too jarringly when superimposed against the lifesize actors. However, it’s the story and the acting that really sell it. Compared with Frankenstein, Bride is a real thriller, peeling back its revelations with every scene. If the mere sight of the monster did the business earlier, the need for upping the ante this time around is felt clearly. Giving us a second manmade creature isn’t enough. There are subplots running throughout, from the occasional focus on Frankenstein’s maid, played with hammy hysteria by Una O’Connor, to the more important bit about Elizabeth being kidnapped. It’s worth remembering that this is a 75-minute film - so much is crammed into it that there’s no chance of flabbiness. At no point does it feel ponderous and worthy.

As far as the acting is concerned, it’s difficult to see past Boris Karloff, who is billed simply as KARLOFF in the credits. That’s an improvement on part one, where a stark question mark sits in the ‘Players’ column next to the Monster, as if we may believe for a moment it really might have been created from spare parts. Here, Karloff rules. He fills every scene with a combination of pathos and menace. It’s a tough job to do, but despite the 40-odd pounds of make-up, prosthetics and weights, he pulls it off, making us both fear and feel sympathy for his creature. The scenes in which he is supposed to provide the laughs work equally well. The expression on the monster’s face as he tries cigarettes and alcohol for the first time is a picture - we’ve all been there, mate. Ernest Thesiger as Pretorios provides fine support, turning out to be one of the campest villians in horror movie history, a bit like watching a malevolent Charles Hawtrey. Thesiger can silence his opponents with a stare; he can also reduce us to hysterics with his pithy asides and black comedy. As in the first film, Colin Clive walks the line between sanity and madness suitably well, and there’s also great support from Valerie Hobson as Elizabeth. She was 17 when she appeared in this picture, but you wouldn’t know it. Franz Waxman’s luxurious score is a real thing of beauty, the music accompanying both the monster and his mate a sublime mixture of strangeness and doomed romance.

The Bride of Frankenstein does what every really good sequel ought to - it expands its own universe, offering something new in the spirit of the original, whilst not being a simple retread. It’s also a subversive film, in the sense that lashings of camp humour are allowed to float past the censors and onto the screen, hidden within the plot but noticeable to the modern viewer. This may be the best horror film of all time though like most movies from the 1930s it has inevitably dated. Scenes that might have put contemporary audiences in shock are so mimicked and parodied to our well trained eyes that its effects have no chance of remaining as powerful. But then, true horror is about more than being simply scary. When done properly, it should force us to run a gamut of emotions, particularly empathy for the monsters therein so that unlike, say Freddy Krueger, we can appreciate why they’re the twisted things they are, why they are a menace. Bride achieves that perfectly. From the opening through to Frankenstein’s ‘She’s alive! Alive!’ cry, Karloff makes us see what being a monster is all about, and indeed is the most human of all the characters by the end.

Posted on 29th January 2009
Under: Uncategorized, Horror, Classics | 8 Comments »

‘I wish we could stay here forever… and ever… and ever’

Over the weekend, I watched Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, the biographical documentary that was packaged with the ‘Stanley Kubrick: Collection’ set. How it made me want to catch up with some of the old master’s work, not least the series of earlier works (Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, Paths of Glory) I bought recently and is now sat on a shelf begging ‘Play me… play me…’

It also got me thinking about The Shining, the only Kubrick I ever felt able to comment on and did so in an article I wrote several years ago. The trouble with The Shining, let alone the trouble with Kubrick generally, is that with each viewing of the movie I have very different reactions and feelings to what’s happening. Sometimes I think it’s all in crazy Jack’s head. On other occasions I watch it as a straightforward ghost story. Both interpretations work, as do various alternatives - is it all in Danny’s head?

Ultimately all that really matters is The Shining’s status as a great movie. It’s very scary, particularly in a creepy, unsettling way, and it leaves more questions than answers, which all good horror movies should. To date I am yet to see anyone look more frightened in a film than Shelley Duvall, and hopefully that wasn’t the culmination of regular bollockings from Kubrick. It contains many memorable scenes. Among the best has Wendy reading through Jack’s ‘writing,’ a bit of movie magic so potent that plans are afoot to publish a Torrance manuscript. But there are so many, from the camera tracking Danny Big Wheeling along the endless hotel corridors through to Jack standing over a replica of the maze before it becomes the maze itself, complete with Wendy and Danny trying it out. And what about Jack’s conversation with Lloyd, the demon bartender of the Overlook? Or his chat with Grady, the tension heightened by the fact both protagonists are almost perfectly still while delivering their lines?

Memorably, Stephen King disliked Kubrick’s interpretation of his novel, disagreeing entirely with the choice of acting personnel. Had the author been given his own way, Jon Voight might have been cast as Jack, the logic being that - as in the book - the character would experience a descent into madness, whereas Nicholson plays him as already being at least halfway there. King also saw Duvall as the wrong choice for Wendy. In his eyes, she looked too emotionally damaged already, before having to deal with Jack’s antics in the Overlook. Needless to say, King was wrong. Nicholson and Duvall are superb in The Shining, giving definitive performances, whilst the casting of Steven Weber and Rebecca de Mornay in the King-approved, 1997 mini-series led to an unmemorable experience and a largely forgotten production.

Anyway, what follows is my rather lengthy review from 2004, written for a long-dead website. This is kind of a Director’s Cut, tidied up with bits cropped and added here and there. I really like this film and intend to follow publishing this piece with another viewing, lights off and surround sound on for that supremely unsettling score and disturbing sense of claustrophobia. All work and no play…

There was once this haunted house in the middle of nowhere. During the summer, it was a hotel, and lots of people stayed there, never seeing the ghosts. But later, when the snow fell and the house was cut off from the outside world, and only the caretaker and his family remained, the ghosts came out…

Here's Johnny!The Shining is about more than that, of course. ‘Haunted house’ stories are ten a penny, and most of them follow the same sort of path. Where The Shining differs is in its subtlety, the inference that maybe, just maybe, there are no ghosts at all, and that what you’re seeing is a family breaking through the strain of being locked up in a building together with no realistic route of escape. There’s plenty in the movie to suggest this isn’t the case, that what we’re watching is indeed the classic tale of a man falling under the presence of malevolent spirits, but I don’t think things are ever that easy.

I read the book long before seeing the film. Back in my early teens, Stephen King was more or less the gateway into adult literature yet in the specific case of this book, I didn’t think it was one of his best. All the ingredients were there, but it just didn’t appear to deliver a spooky whammy in the way Salem’s Lot did, nor did it have the emotional core of Pet Sematary. It fell way behind Misery in terms of sheer suspense, the latter being a tome I read in several breathless hours. The novel of The Shining had a greater sense of fantasy, of being a tale of the supernatural, than the picture - there aren’t, for instance, any shrubberies that come alive in the celluloid version, and a good thing too.

King’s novels were great because they could be genuinely scary, believed in the power of building up tension (this is his secret; not that it’s really a secret at all, but you have to appreciate his ability to mount the suspense until it hangs by the very last thread) and the characters swore occasionally. That was something you didn’t get in Fighting Fantasy. But unlike many of the movie adaptations based on his work, Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining blew the book away.

On with the plot, which starts with Jack Torrance visiting the Overlook Hotel in the Rockies. He’s applying for the job of winter caretaker, a position that will see him more or less incarcerated in the place because of the harsh winter. Quite brusquely, he waves off any suggestion that life will be difficult for his wife and child, explaining they’ll love it, whilst it’ll give him a chance to crack on undisturbed with some writing. Does the implicitly creepy note that the hotel is built on an ancient Indian burial ground (quite a common theme in King’s work this) deter him? Course not. What about the fact that a previous caretaker, Grady, ran amok and killed his family? Not a problem.

Thus armed with this information, Jack gets the job and shows up at the appointed time with his wife, Wendy, and little boy, Danny. We soon learn that the latter is a bit special. He has a gift that is outlined to him as ’shining’, an ability to see into the future, know things that are happening far away, etc. It’s a form of telepathy, in other words, only here it’s used more abstractly, and because Danny’s a child it is personified in an immature way. During a quick chat with the hotel’s chef, Dick Halloran (played by Scatman ‘Heeeenrific!’ Crothers), the boy learns he isn’t the only one with this talent, and is warned that some of the memories left in the hotel aren’t all good. You can say that again. Within minutes of walking over the threshold, Danny is visited by the spirits of twin girls, shades of Grady’s murdered daughters, and will do so again before the end.

Jack and Danny try to get alongThe Torrances start life on their own. Pretty soon, the storms are rolling in, cutting telephone communications and making them rely on a radio to the nearest police station (which, we assume, is miles away). Danny and Wendy explore the hotel, in particular its magnificent maze, and Jack writes. Or does he? Shorn of inspiration, we see him aimlessly bouncing a ball against the wall. Later, he’s doing nothing at all, simply staring out of the window. The ideas aren’t coming, he tells Wendy, and a note of irritative sarcasm enters his voice more and more. This threatens to spill over into violence later when Wendy happens to disturb him at his typewriter. But then Danny enters an open bedroom during one of his frequent Big Wheels trips around the floors, and things get worse very quickly.

During these early scenes, the slow breakdown is taking place before our very eyes. Not only is Jack struggling to work, but he’s also experiencing some weird feelings about the hotel. He senses he might have been there before, and in a chat with Danny declares he wishes he could stay there ‘forever and ever’, which for the boy is an echo of something the ghost twins said to him previously. After Danny goes into the bedroom, he emerges with marks around his neck and tells Wendy a ‘crazy woman’ tried to strangle him. It’s now time for Jack’s visions to take over. Having been blamed by Wendy for attacking their son, he tiredly makes his way to one of the opulent bars. And he isn’t alone. In my personal favourite scene from the picture, Jack finds that Lloyd the barman is waiting and ready to serve him whiskey, which naturally is on the house. On the subject of Lloyd, have there been many more demonic characters than him in the movies? I don’t mean in the Al Pacino shouting his head off as Satan, but for sheer creepiness and quiet malevolence. I’m not sure what it is - the lighting that brings out all the lines in his face, his deep, serpent-pleasant voice or the easy vice he allows, but there’s something purely evil about him.

Is The Shining a horror film? It certainly is, and an extremely atmospheric one at that. Kubrick pushed all the right buttons in delivering frights by putting everything into the build-up to the moment rather than the moment itself. As is often the case in such fare, the music often gives a clue as to what is about to happen, and here it’s absolutely spooky, barely music at all when it comes down to it, but instead the sounds of nerves audibly jangling. The Shing is no ‘traditional’ horror. There’s no hand reaching out of the earth to clutch the heroine’s wrist as in Carrie. Kids don’t see their dead kin floating outside their bedroom windows, eyes burning white, as happens in Salem’s Lot. In fact, you see very little that’s deliberately scary. Ninety per cent of the frights come from the actors themselves. You see it in Jack Nicholson’s deranged performance as Torrance, in the looks of abject terror on Wendy’s face. Most haunted of all is Danny, who does so well in portraying childlike fear. The bit where he sees the dead girls and covers his eyes with his fingers, only later removing them slowly to let one eye peek out, is exactly what a small kid would do.

The movie relies on Nicholson, however. In 1980, he was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, an Oscar winner thanks to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a veteran of Chinatown and Five Easy Pieces. In his early scenes, such as his job interview, he talks quite deliberately, almost forced, as though the madness is never that far away. Indeed, later we learn that he’s cracking up before he even goes to the hotel, a victim of his recovery from alcoholism, writing failures and domestic problems. All this spills over into his experiences whilst being the caretaker. When he speaks to Wendy, his dialogue is punctuated by slow, eyebrow-jerking nastiness, a man on the very edge. It’s only with his ghosts that he becomes more natural, and even here there’s a twist in store. Notice the times he banters with Lloyd and Grady, supposed spirits from the building’s past. He’s actually looking at himself in the mirror, speaking to himself. In other words, all the ghosts are in his head.

Hello, LloydThat isn’t to say The Shining doesn’t contain spectres. Explaining away Wendy’s visitations in the last act are more difficult, though how much reason does anyone have when they’re running around in terror? What she glimpses are instances from the past, memories of parties that took place long ago. Finally, there’s the elevator doors gushing out blood. I have an explanation for this, which readers may or may not choose to accept. Always an image I had difficulty in taking on board, it’s only when I revisited the film and recalled the bit about it being built on your Indian burial ground that it made any kind of sense. We all know about the ‘pioneering spirit’ in the USA that led to thousands of native Americans being slaughtered, captured and having their heritage demolished. The Overlook Hotel is a symbol of this very act. Its erection shows a casual disregard for the native population, and its grandeur a poke in the eye - what could be worse than having a graveyard where your parents lie being torn down in favour of a hotel for the rich? So is the place representative of a society built on blood, on the destruction of one group of people by another? Maybe…

And that’s only one theory behind the hidden meanings of The Shining. One of Kubrick’s typically ambiguous works, it defies easy explanation and I ought to know. In preparation for this review, I’ve read a vast array of comments and there’s only one certainty - nobody agrees on it. One suggestion was that it was a satire on modern television, that Jack’s uttering of TV lines at the climax are the end product of a clever criticism of the goggle box. Or is it a rumination on depression? Is it about a failed marriage, or the projections of a child with powerful telepathic capabilities? Or, as the most astute comments suggest, does this matter at all? Can’t we just see it as a great ghost story and have done with it? Of course we can, and that’s what’s so good about it. You can delve into the potential allegory, or you can sit down, turn the lights off and prepare to be afraid. And I think you will be.

Kubrick himself remained oblique about his intentions, which is really what we want. His job was to throw together the elements of gothic horror, sublime camerawork (e.g. following Danny as he races headlong through the maze; tracking back from Wendy while she reads the ‘All work and no play’ papers and Jack, unnoticed, is creeping up on her), mounting suspense and Jack Nicholson’s mesmerising performance, and leave the interpretations to us. One more point I’ll make before I leave you to rush off to your beloved shelf of films and dust off your DVD copy. The majority of us enjoy being with our families. I like living with mine wife and The Boy. No problems there. But if we were placed in a similar situation, how long would it take before I became irritated to the point of insanity by their foibles, to have the things they say and do become magnified because I had no counterpoint, no balance in my life to play against their annoying nuances? At what point would I lose it? And when I did start to ‘kick off’, what would I do about it?

Posted on 25th January 2009
Under: Horror, Classics | 4 Comments »

From out of Space - a Warning and an Ultimatum

I am yet to see the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, which by all accounts is an insipid affair and further proof that great films don’t emerge from throwing lashings of CGI onto the screen. Critics have pointed out the obvious - the 1951 original is a genuine classic, a play on Cold War American paranoia that didn’t need to be remade. Simply swapping the theme of war with one of environmental concerns just isn’t enough. Though the subject matter of TDTESS is flexible enough to lend itself to a fresh perspective, it really needs more than Keanu Reeves looking blank-faced alongside computer rendered visions of an apocalyptic Earth. A pity. I quite fancied seeing it, particularly on IMAX. Now it looks like I’ll be waiting for the DVD.

The Day the Earth Stood Still posterThat isn’t to say the film from fifty seven years ago is poorer as a result. It’s not, and I was lucky enough to pick up a copy for under a fiver during some Christmas presents purchasing bonanza (you all know how it is, I’m sure). I would definitely recommend owning this one. The Region 2, 20th Century Fox ‘Studio Classics’ edition comes with an original 1951 poster on the front cover, a rather schlocky affair depicting a scene that doesn’t actually take place in the film but no doubt dragged them in off the streets. I sort of wish I’d made the greater outlay for a two-disc ‘Cinema Reserve’ copy, but no matter. The restoration is a thing of beauty, rendering into sharp focus the use of light and shadow that Robert Wise employed to near perfection.

It’s no surprise to learn that Wise served as editor on such classics as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. His work with Orson Welles must have offered him the perfect grounding in cinematography, in using the limited space on the screen to create great visual shots. His direction here transforms what should perhaps have been a pulp, third rate science fiction cheapie into something thought-provoking, technically excellent and with real depth. Check out, for example, the scene where Klaatu first visits Helen Benson’s boarding house. As the residents watch the news on their no doubt recently bought television set, they’re bathed in its light, whilst the alien newcomer is enveloped in the shadow of the darkened hallway. Another memorable moment comes as Klaatu and Helen share an elevator, only to find it’s become their prison thanks to his plan to switch off the world’s electricity for thirty minutes. He sees it as an opportunity to reveal himself to her, but her initial reaction is of being trapped, and the camera reflects this by turning the silhouette of the elevator car grid into prison bars.

Of course, it isn’t scenes like these for which the film is remembered. Rather the primitive special effects work that has Klaatu’s flying saucer landing in Washington DC is recalled scornfully, as is the costume covering Lock Martin as Gort, Klaatu’s robotic accomplice. Certainly, the lumbering, often inert Gort isn’t a being to strike terror into the hearts of 21st century audiences. As a killing mchine, it isn’t a patch on the Terminator. Yet it’s part of a minor plot twist that makes its role much fuller than that of a mere mechanical moron, and it’s consistent also. Writers Edmund H North and Harry Bates don’t cop out by giving it emotions or a mind of its own, which makes its automaton presence all the more sinister.

TDTESS is certainly of its era. A tale of American sensibilities at the height of the Cold War (one onlooker even hints that Klaatu’s saucer might have been sent by the other side of the Curtain), it wisely doesn’t lay on its message too thick, instead weaving its yarn in an almost impassive, documentary style, indeed much of the exposition comes from the mouths of radio and television people who commentate on the action. Elsewhere, Wise points the camera at his characters and lets them go about their business, as though we’re spectators also, albeit ones on the inside track. We follow Klaatu as he decides to immerse himself in human life before delivering his message to the world, better to understand the beings he is dealing with. Fortunately, he spends much of his time with Helen’s child, Bobby, who takes him to signficant places like the Lincoln memorial, all so our friend from another world might intone about meeting great people.

Gort does his Cylon thingAs we follow Klaatu’s progress, the Christ parallels become more obvious. Taking the assumed identity of ‘Mr Carpenter’ (do you see?), he doesn’t have any great difficulty in winning the trust of the Bensons. As Klaatu the alien, however, he is treated with suspicion and occasional revulsion. Twice he is shot without posing a threat, the first time by a nervous, trigger happy soldier as he approaches. Before he can meet his ‘disciples’ within the scientific community, he is again shot and this time apparently dies, though Gort and some nifty technology on the saucer resurrect him. This gives Klaatu an opportunity to deliver his message, a seemingly predictable polemic about the need for peace but with an undertone of threat.

The allegories are indeed there if you look for them; otherwise TDTESS is just a great slice of entertainment. Further mastery comes with the casting, and it’s here we get a perfect example of why the recent release might have failed. Bradford born actor Michael Rennie was offered the role of Klaatu after the producer, Daryl F Zanuck, watched him on the stage in London. Though he had already appeared in numerous British films, Rennie was largely unknown to American audiences, and Zanuck felt the character might have more credibility if the actor playing him wasn’t already a star. He was proved right. Rennie underplays his role, imbuing Klaatu with a kind of studied curiousity about the world he’s flown to and there’s something exactly right about that. It’s easy to see why Keanu Reeves was considered right for the remake, yet everyone’s knowledge of the star’s limited range seems to have given critics an all too easy stick. Sam Jaffe is excellent in the relatively minor part of Professor Barnhardt, the scientist whose lifelong work is solved instantly by the spaceman. And Billy Gray overturns the usual theory about child actors by playing Bobby exactly as a real child. For much of the film, the boy trusts and admires Mr Carpenter, only to run home scared once he learns the identity of his new friend, all prior loyalties forgotten.

Patricia Neal, who plays Helen, confessed that she spent her time on set trying to overcome her giggles. The actress thought she was starring in a low budget potboiler and struggled to take any of it seriously. However far we can view the film as an enduring classic, the fact remains it was cheaply made and very little appeared to differentiate it from other trash flicks of time. Though the movie tries to insinuate a planet threatened, it achieves this merely by the cinematic staple of people using different languages whilst talking into microphones in order to hint at the world’s press. The actors playing Klaatu and Bobby didn’t really visit the Lincoln memorial and Arlington Cemetery; they never left the studio and simply acted their scenes in front of background screens. Klaatu’s flying saucer, which was supposed to be made from an impervious metal, was in fact a prop cobbled together using wood and plaster of paris. Lock Martin’s Gort costume had a zipper in the back for scenes where he was shot from the front, and vice versa when filming from behind.

There has to be an easier way to get FiveLittle wonder that Neal considered the production to be more than a little silly. And maybe in different hands that’s exactly how it might have turned out. Instead, with Wise as director it happened to have one of the country’s up and coming film makers at the helm. He would go on to win Academy Awards for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, two superbly staged musicals that didn’t let the songs get in the way of riveting storylines. TDTESS came long before these films and carries all the trappings of greatness. At a shade under ninety minutes in running time, it’s taut and never gets dull, covering vast swathes of plot and somehow not getting bogged down in its own story or mythology. Another significant contribution to the crew was Bernard Herrmann, like Wise a veteran of Welles’s halcyon era and here hired to provide the film’s memorably otherworldly score. Herrmann hit upon the idea of using two theremins to create the high pitched effect that is now considered a staple of science fiction movie music, and won a Golden Globe for his pioneering work.

Aspects of TDTESS certainly come across as dated to our eyes, and that isn’t a further weary stab at the special effects. I was stunned at the scene in which Helen quite happily foists her child for the day on Klaatu despite him being more or less a perfect stranger, and a quietly spoken one at that. The effects of the electricity outage are revealed in some loveably quaint vignettes; my favourite showed a farmer trying irritatedly to milk his cows. It’s moments like these that suggest why a modern update was seen to be justified, even if the results were not.

The 1951 vintage is simply a great movie. Its influence on later films can be seen very clearly, as it can on TV (notably The Twilight Zone, which ran a variety of similar tales), not to mention the countless homages and references that have popped up in other works. Does this make it one of the greatest science fiction films of all time? The American Film Institute ranked it fifth, slotting it between Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange. However you look at it, that isn’t bad going for a 1950s Cold War thriller.

Posted on 21st December 2008
Under: Classics | 5 Comments »

‘Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won’

WaterlooWhen I was in my early teens, a group of mates and I got into wargaming. These were the dark, pre-Internet days, and whereas now we might have contented ourselves with chatrooms and interactive Football Manager, back then there was nothing much to do but purchase hundreds of miniature lead soldiers and plough them into each other. Well, there was football, and indeed American Football, but on only so many occasions could we risk the delights of Redcar’s Dog Crap Stadium in order to indulge. After spending hours taking painstaking efforts to paint the models, designing fields with little bushes, buildings, roads, etc, it was time for a game, and nothing did for us more than the campaigns of the Napoleonic era.

As anyone who’s wasted their lives in such practices will know, this period offers the most promise for gamers. The alternatives were ancient battles (too pitched), World War One (waiting in trenches until someone was bored enough to attack) and made-up nonsense involving fantasy wars set in the future. Who knew what that was all about? The real appeal of Napoleonic gaming was that it was a strategist’s dream. Wars were fought via single battles that involved vast armies, and whoever emerged victorious tended to claim enormous advantages. There were rarely any atrocities committed against civilians. Guerilla warfare existed only in the anti-British Americas. All in all, it came across as a more elegant style of conflict, war waged by gentlemen, if you will.

As this was a clash between the great powers of the day - France, Austria, Russia, Britain and Prussia - there was no great disparity in the technical levels of each army. All were roughly up to speed when it came to the mix of infantry, cavalry and artillery, and though all sides had areas in which they claimed superiority and weakness the real decisive element was in the tactical minds of the field generals. For many years, Napoleon himself held the upper hand. A superb military thinker, his great skill was in speed. As the Duke of Wellington once observed, he moved his cannons as quickly as pistols, and it was for this specific reason that he caught the attention of French leaders during the revolution and rose through the ranks. However, Wellington was no shirk either. For most of the Napoleonic wars, he spent his time fighting through Spain, slowly freeing the Iberian Peninsula from the grip of the French. It wasn’t until Waterloo itself that Wellington confronted Napoleon in battle and met the ultimate test of his own intelligence.

In our games, I was always the French, and unlike Bonaparte, I was no student of Caesar. Thinking about it, I reckon my opponents - who knew the rules - cheated when it required them to do so. Most battles ended in stalemate as everything tended to be decided by early cavalry battles. Whoever won these mass fights held an immense upper hand as horsemen were so superior to infantry. That was according to the instructions, at least, which I never bothered reading because of the sheer disinterest attached to poring through 100+ pages of dice-throwing guidelines and so on.

Wargaming figures in 'action' - mine were never this well painted, that's if I bothered to paint them at allThe other thing about wargaming was a heightened interest in all things to do with this period. As an historian anyway, I was bound to be hooked by the adventures of ‘Boney’, and though we didn’t study any of this stuff at school (the curriculum jumped us on from colonial times to the dull-as-dishwater Industrial Revolution) there was a wealth of information to hand. Our library had books covering it in some detail, whether my fancy was for a general overview of his life and campaigns, or an appraisal of each of his marshalls (of whom the best was the bald-headed Davout, and not Ney, whom revisionists have dismissed rather aptly as a swashbuckler whose brains weren’t always in his head).

One Bank Holiday Easter Monday, at the height of our interest, the Beeb screened Waterloo, an old movie about the great battle that ended Napoleon’s threat for good. On the other side was Spartacus, and spoilt for choice as I was I taped the former and watched the latter. Suffice it to say the video wore out after repeated viewings. To me at the time, it was the ideal film, framed around the panorama of a major confrontation and looking for all the world as it might have done during the real thing. But later, I learned that Waterloo was nothing less than one of the major cinematic flops of all time. It cost something like $25m to make (putting that figure into context, Star Wars, which was released seven years later, had a production budget of $11m), and won back a fraction of that at the box office.

Does that make it a bad movie? Well, that depends on who you talk to. Ardent wargamers would argue that it takes too many liberties with what happened, though you would need to be a true connoisseur to know that the British soldiers’ packs didn’t look right, or that the Scots Greys weren’t involved on the day to the extent they were on screen. The criticisms of its accuracy are nitpicking rather than substantive. Sure, certain aspects of the truth have been twisted for dramatic effect, but not in such a way to make them unbelievable, and as it happens the story told is much closer to the events than most recreations would come close to achieving. Certainly, the characterisations of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and Napoleon (Rod Steiger) are uncannily good, whilst the filmmakers’ efforts to create soldiers’ costumes that look the part deserve some recognition.

Christopher Plummer as WellingtonIn fact, the real reasons behind its failure are much easier to swallow. Though war movies were big business at the time, it was depictions of the Second World War that sold tickets because many viewers still remembered the era and identified with it. How could the same be true for a battle that took place 145 years ago, one that didn’t involve any Americans? The Napoleonic wars might have been fascinating to the odd person, but in general they appeared to have little relevance, a sideshow in the general sweep of history. Besides which, tastes in the industry were for more modern, urban and gritty tales. Waterloo, with its elegant glance at a time long past, meant less than nothing. Which is a shame, as it’s a cracking film for the most part.

Our tale begins in 1814. Napoleon is on the brink of abdicating the French throne as allied armies close in on Paris. Defeated, exhausted and looking quite ill, he tells his marshalls off (especially Ney, who comes in for a fair few bollockings as the tale progresses) for suggesting he ratify the ‘resignation’, and then signs it anyway. After saying an emotional goodbye to his loyal soldiers, the French Old Guard, he departs for exile on the island of Elba. Louis XVIII is crowned king, and a continent prepares to settle down.

Or does it? Within a year, Napoleon has returned, invading France with his personal guard of 1,000 men. Louis dispatches Ney to finish him off, but the army rallies to their old Emperor, as does the marshall. Having told Louis he’d bring Napoleon before him ‘in an iron cage’, he’s back by his former master’s side, preparing to overthrow the unpopular new regime. This is achieved in lightning time. The next thing we see, Bonaparte is preparing once again for war against the allies, who declared hostilities against him as soon as they found he was back in power. Only the British and Prussians can realistically deal with the problem though. Wellington is in Brussels, and the ageing General Blucher also turns around whilst in Belgium. Napoleon and his hastily assembled army make short work of the latter, effectively dividing the British and Prussians with a victory at Ligny, and then starts marching on the Belgian capital. It’s up to Wellington to stop him; the armies collide near the sleepy village of Waterloo.

What follows is a battle of epic proportions. It’s also one that depends on time. Napoleon needs to crush his enemy speedily before the Prussians can regroup and march to the field. In contrast, Wellington must hold his position and hope Blucher arrives in time to clean up. In preparation for the scrap, both camps mull over what’s about to happen, Welly worrying about his dependence on Prussia, Boney becoming ill and fretting over his ability to regain command over his failing powers. The rest is taken up by fifty minutes of intense fighting, including masses of artillery fire, cavalry charges, dying generals and the usual portents of doom. Without wanting to ruin it for anyone who doesn’t possibly know the outcome, I can say it’s an amazing visual experience, and the odd inaccuracy aside, it’s authentic and exciting enough to keep anyone on the edge of their seat. After all, as battles go, Waterloo was in the balance for a long time. It took an age to be decided. Right until the final, decisive moves, either side could have emerged as the victor.

Napoleon, played by Rod SteigerThe defects in this picture are few, but they do make a difference. My biggest complaint is that at just over two hours, it’s just too short. Certain aspects of the battle are rushed, as is a great deal of the exposition, leading to an experience that might not seem full enough to those who don’t know a lot about the events. By all accounts, a four-hour version is kicking around in the vaults, and it would be great to see this better explained edition hit the streets at some point. Without such a cut, Waterloo seems very uneven. We never really understand why the allies don’t give Napoleon another chance. All the ramifications of the battle’s events aren’t made sufficiently clear, and there isn’t enough of the fighting generally.

Waterloo was made in 1970 by Sergei Bondarchuk, who presided over a project funded with Italian and Russian money. Considering the pan-European basis of the movie, it’s for certain there’s going to be some actors involved who don’t speak English, and in places the dubbing is of a ‘Monkey’ standard i.e. bad. This is never more the case than with our own Jack Hawkins, who plays General Picton. By the time he was involved, Hawkins was extremely ill and had lost the use of his voice, so it had to be over-dubbed and never looks or indeed sounds right. And he provides one of the better turns. On the whole, it’s not a masterclass of acting, though the main protagonists do well with their parts. At times, people don’t appear to know where they need to stand or look, which adds to the confusing fun. And there are several instances where actors are shown riding fake horses, and look just like actors sitting on, er, fake horses. Very poor.

Finally, a word on the editing, which stinks generally. The early scenes leading up to the battle can be quite ponderous and irrelevant, particularly during a ball in Brussels, which is where we first meet Wellington. We also get to see his wife and niece, who appear in this one scene and then vanish, as though they have no place in the overall plot and were shoehorned in just to offer a brief glimpse of the occasional female in this men-only feature. Too much time is devoted to a group of Northern Irish soldiers fighting for Wellington. It would mean something if their tale was a squaddie’s eye view of what goes on, but this doesn’t lead anywhere either, save for the odd slice of comic relief. Once the serious fighting starts, they pretty much vanish from the action.

And yet, for all that the spectacle of the battle itself utterly outweighs any shortcomings. Bondarchuk hired the enormous Russian army to take the parts of the soldiers, and it shows. Considering Waterloo was fought between forces that possessed an approximate strength of 70,000 men each, the array of divisions has been re-enacted as faithfully as it ever could be. There are simply thousands of soldiers here, all dressed in the colour co-ordinated uniforms of the time, and to see them lined up is an astonishing sight. In one scene, Napoleon scans the opposition ranks. His telescope sweeps across battalion after battalion, and in this era when computer effects were still a distant dream, what we’re seeing surely is an army’s worth of extras. Indeed, as one source put it, whilst making the movie Bondarchuk was in control of the seventh largest fighting force in the world.

The fighting is no less worth your while. Each cohort advances to the sound of drums and its own individual tune (some of these faithfully recreated from real contemporary battle anthems). Opposing soldiers can hear their approach from hundreds of yards away, a truly frightening and ominous rumble of oncoming death. As the camera follows marching soldiers, you hear muskets being loaded, cannon fire, people urging others on, the rattle of distant shooting, and sometimes you see very little through the screen of gunpowder smoke, giving a vivid impression of what it might have been like to be there. Some of the work is breathtaking. A massive cavalry charge led by Ney looks like it served as an inspiration for the Rohirrin’s antics in The Return of the King. Thousands of horses are involved, pelting forward in formation, and yet it’s ultimately doomed as the skill of the British in countering such an attack helps to turn the course of the battle.

Napoleon and Ney on the campaign trailThat aside, we have two quite brilliant performances from Steiger and Plummer to savour. The former was in his ’shouting a lot’ phase during this time, and it serves him well as he takes on the poisoned chalice role of Napoleon. He reflects the Emperor’s violent mood swings perfectly, capturing his magnetism and revulsion at once. By the time of Waterloo, Bonaparte was failing both in terms of health and his military powers. The resulting self-doubt is shown in various scenes by Steiger, who seems to be aware that whatever else happens, Waterloo will be his epitaph.

Christopher Plummer is possibly even better as the patrician Arthur Wellesley. In reality, Wellington was an utter snob, someone who regarded his soldiers as gin-toting scum, and though Plummer’s turn agrees with this he is altogether more charismatic. Reproducing faithfully much of what the Duke actually said on the day, he comes across as believable and somehow above it all. I’m not sure if Wellington was really so repulsed by what happened that he gave up leading armies as a result, but Plummer suggests this was exactly the case.

Elsewhere, we have a fine cameo by Orson Welles as Louis XVIII. By this point, Welles was grossly overweight, and thus ideally cast as the ‘fat king’, even though his screen time is less than five minutes. Daniel O’Herlihy plays Ney precisely as we imagined him, the sword-happy gobshite who was probably not bright enough to be a leading light amongst Napoleon’s marshalls. A troupe of posh-voiced British thesps make up Wellington’s generals, all from the upper echelons but willing to follow their commander into the jaws of death.

The costumes are authentic, and the props and locations look as though everyone involved got into a timewarp back to the early nineteenth century for the sake of getting it right. No expense was spared, and as a result Waterloo looks fantastic. It’s also quite unique, hinged as it is around one set-piece battle. If only the hopelessly uneven editing could be sorted out. The movie’s potential status as a misunderstood modern classic might be gained if a more coherent cut was available. Even so, I’ll still never get my wargaming figures out again - as I recall, I sold them for booze years ago.

Posted on 16th May 2008
Under: Classics, War and that | 5 Comments »

‘If you listen very carefully, you can hear the gods laughing!’

Many met the return of the grand, large-scale historical epic with indifference, but for me it was a good thing. Though I would stop my life for two hours of film noir happily enough, nothing really beats a lush, three-hour marathon with a cast of thousands, vast ornate sets and soundtrack thundering throughout. In the fifties and sixties, the work of Cecil B DeMille and William Wyler dominated. They often referred to the Bible and early Christianity as a source, which transformed their films into church-friendly tales crammed with an omnipotent God and those who believed (the goodies) and others who did not (always met a sticky end).

The Fall of the Roman EmpireThe biggest of these was Ben Hur, a multi-Oscar winning four hours about a Jewish prince whose deeds are related in parallel with the life of Jesus. Like all such movies, it was pretty obvious stuff, hammering its values and points home and relying on a cast of straightforward heroes and villains. El Cid moved the action out of ancient times, and concentrated on a medieval Spanish warrior who fought the Moors in the name of God. Both starred Charlton Heston, a sombre voiced, square jawed presence who practically carried The Ten Commandments, another bottom discomforter, in which he took on the massive role of Moses. It was a great picture, and a top-drawer performance, as your man goes from adopted Egyptian prince to bearded sage, replete with magical staff that causes untold damage to Yul Brynner’s Pharaonic empire.

Perhaps the best epic barely touched upon Christianity at all. Spartacus commanded a superb turn from Kirk Douglas as the eponymous slave turned revolter. Even better was Lord Laurence of Olivier, playing Marcus Crassus, the patrician Roman Consul who’s charged with crushing the rebellion whilst lusting after Tony Curtis. It possessed more style and subtlety than many of its predecessors combined, though it came as the genre was winding to a close. By the late 1960s, audience tastes had moved on. There was a growing preference for realism and contemporary subject matter, leading to the gritty modern classics that dominated much of the 1970s. Spending untold millions on high concept historical melodramas just didn’t draw the public anymore. The studios couldn’t afford the outlay, and the risks involved in recouping the costs were too high.

Partly to blame for all this was The Fall of the Roman Empire, released in 1964 and making a big loss. Though Cleopatra is perceived widely to be the death stroke for this type of movie, TFOTRE was just as grand and opulent. It was off to a sticky wicket from the start, given that its contents held little relevance to the masses (clearly, the twin towers of God and Sex sell tickets, and this had neither), and consequently its ironic title referred not only to its subject matter but to the demise of the genre itself.

And yet it remains a thing of beauty, a folly of the celluloid world that contains an ensemble cast and a sweeping saga of no little grandeur. Anthony Mann, best known for his iconic Westerns, directed it. No doubt aided by his experience of filming vast expanses of empty country, he gave a great sense of scale to TFOTRE, entirely at home when depicting scenes in all-engulfing German forests, or the jungle of the Roman Senate. So much of this picture depended on size. In one memorable scene, the corpse of the old Emperor is laid to rest before an entire army. With snow billowing, the camera swoops over thousands of people, joined in the sort of collective mournathon for which Elton John might have composed the theme tune.

One of the academic problems with the film was that there is no easy way of defining the moment when the Roman Empire actually fell. Some might argue that it came with the sacking of Rome by the Ostrogoths in the fifth century, when the empire shifted wholesale to its new base in Constantinople and breathed for another millennia as Byzantium. Others suggest the rot started much, much earlier, that the seeds of destruction were already in place even before Rome became an Empire. It’s possible that Rome’s doom was spelled out as soon as someone demonstrated that whoever was in command of the army effectively controlled the state. Whatever. It’s a debate that has worked many brilliant minds, and will obviously do so forever because there’s no single answer. What counts here is the perspective the filmmakers took - they went for the reign of Commodus in the second century AD.

Why then? The movie implies this was a real turning point in Rome’s existence, that the Emperor Marcus Aurelius had declared the borders of the empire to be drawn, and that everyone inside those borders was to become a Roman citizen. Whether this actually happened at all is something of a historical debate, but the point is that Marcus Aurelius was in a position to guarantee freedom and harmony within the Empire, so that it was in better shape to face its foes - the Germans and the Persians. Unfortunately, the ageing Emperor died before he could turn his dream into policy, and when his son, Commodus took over, his subsequent folly led to a complete reversal of this way of thinking. Rome never returned to the hopes and visions of that time, and a series of despotic, short-sighted rulers gradually unravelled the Empire.

Stephen and Sophia try and act their way out of their chainsThe film opens in Germany, a lush and wintry carpet of trees dominated by the Roman fortress. Marcus Aurelius (played by Alec Guinness in typically brilliant, character-led mode) is preparing to announce his grand plan for Rome, and calls on the provincial princes and proconsuls to hear it. In a long-winded set piece, the Emperor meets and greets the lot of them, all driving chariots and dressed in what passes for a rough estimate of what they might have looked like. Omar Sharif pops up as an Armenian prince, wearing a pair of gold underpants - he’ll catch his death. The Emperor’s daughter is Sophia Loren, whose classical looks often lended themselves to such fare. Loren’s problem was that basically, she couldn’t act. Her attempts at dialogue had a Shatner-esque tendency to stop and start at no particular place, and in this film she uses two facial expressions - horrified, and melancholy with a hint of nobility. It doesn’t really matter of course. However you chose to look at her, Loren was an absolute babe in her prime and looked smashing as a decoration in ancient epics.

Her love interest is Livius, who in reality is Stephen Boyd. Making a name for himself as the baddie in Ben Hur, Boyd - actually from Northern Ireland - went all blond and blue-eyed to portray the utterly heroic commander of the Roman army. He spends his time lusting after Loren (who is about to be betrothed to Sharif - damn those political alliances!) and being offered the rule of Rome by Marcus Aurelius. As it happens, the fair-minded soldier is considered a more suitable candidate for pushing the Emperor’s vision than his own son, Commodus. Once the wiry Commodus (Christopher Plummer, who gives a blinding performance as someone losing his sanity as he gains ultimate power) finds out what is going happen, he sulks and struggles to maintain his friendship with Livius. When the latter leads the army into a battle against the Germans, Commodus and his fighting gladiator corps offer themselves as the sacrificial bait, the ones who’ll walk into a trap, draw the enemy out so that the bulk of the Roman forces can wade in afterwards.

Fortune doesn’t favour the brave. A bunch of prominent nobles realise that theirs will be a poor lot if Marcus Aurelius’s dream of a united Empire comes to fruition. They decide to see him off first, and in one of the picture’s best scenes, a blind aide hands the Emperor an apple that has been cut in half by a knife, one side of its blade secreting deadly poison. As the aide eats his unpoisoned half, Marcy Marcus chomps on the other, and the next we see of him is his prone form, as he struggles to get the word ‘Livius’ out, thus naming his successor.

It doesn’t happen. Commodus becomes Emperor, and Livius is left to smoulder his way through what remains of German resistance in the north. Needless to say, the new ruler is pretty crap, spending his time farting around with his gladiator mates and altering the images of divine statues so that they now bear his visage. The empire starts to fall apart. As Commodues levies higher taxes in an attempt to raise the money to transform Rome into a city of beauty, the east revolts, Livius is called to help and the plot turns a notch as he catches up with Loren, herself one of the rebels

All well and good, and indeed the massive, grinding story moves nicely when it’s not engaged in stately marches and processions that appear to be a ‘look at the money we spent on this!’ demonstration. You can, of course, recreate all this with CGI now, but until Rome it was hard to imagine the costs involved in recreating the Roman forum, which at the time was the largest movie set ever built. It’s a study in marble, brilliant and white and completely alien to anything we can see now. In the eastern scenes, ruined heads of statues lie in the sand, silently staring for eternity. The trouble is that as usual, there’s a great deal of marches and processions. We get to see just how much detail went into the costumes, and how blaring the orchestra gets, and maybe it happens once too often.

But naturally, movies like these were all about size. Everything had to be big, so that you can only imagine what it would have been like to sit in a cinema, staring goggle-eyed at the screen and havng your eardrums perforated by the sound of trumpets en masse. The story isn’t as pedestrian as it sounds either. Well, it is, but this is the grand sweep of history, and in a picture like this there was never going to be much room for subtlety. We all know Commodus is going to be a bad ‘un, and he is. We can see Livius has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and it doesn’t ever lift.

If the above sounds quite familiar, then sure, it was virtually ripped off by Gladiator, a film that is being described as one of the best in recent years. It isn’t. Apart from a riveting turn by Russell Crowe, its tale is as hackneyed as they get, with characters just as two-dimensional. If it appears superior to TFOTRE, then it’s because Crowe fills the screen in a way Boyd could only ever dream about. That apart, there’s no contest. Witness the very similar battle scenes that pretty much kick off the proceedings. In Gladiator, Crowe makes a stirring speech to his soldiers and off they go! In TFOTRE, tensions are already mounting between the protagonists as they slink into the forests, and whilst they make their way deeper in, it turns out the enemy are watching them, hidden behind every tree and just waiting for the call to attack. All the while, the score, which to this point was crashing and bombastic, slows and lessens to something as wistful as the cool breeze.

Sie Alec Guinness as Marcus AureliusGladiator shows Commodus as a more ruthless killer, one whose madness is equalled by his rising megalomania. Underneath, he’s a coward, and the bully in him rises to the surface a number of times, but the steel in him is clear to see. Plummer’s earlier take sees him start as an almost decent man. His father might not rate him, but all he’s really done wrong is take his duties not too seriously as the Emperor in waiting. He doesn’t kill Marcus Aurelius, but instead is installed as a puppet by greedy Senators who know too well that the old Emperor’s visions of a peaceful, non-expansionist Empire will curtail the regular income such people earned from battles and putting down revolts. Though Commodus is the ultimate power by the close of the movie, he has very little real might in actuality, flattered by those around him and willing in return to give them what they want. Nor is he a coward, being quite willing to enter the ring against Livius without delivering a fatal wound first.

Enough rambling about which was the better movie. It suffices me to say that Gladiator isn’t the only picture to have derived some inspiration from TFOTRE. The Phantom Menace borrowed heavily on much of its imagery, and certainly stole its musical highs and lows. There was also much of its style evident in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I’d go so far as to suggest that Peter Jackson’s vision for that little-known bunch of flicks was made more realistic by the fact that the likes of The Fall of the Roman Empire showed what could be done if you simply thought big.

In my eyes, it’s a forgotten classic, the sort of thing I could snap up for a fiver on VHS twenty years ago. It’s also an imperfect movie, self-indulgent, slow and letting some poor performances slip through the net, including - sadly - those of the main actors. But there’s also so much that’s great about it. The sets, locations, costumes and the sheer imagination to create a film on such a grand scale is the sort of thing we see too little of these days. You have to admire the people involved for throwing so much cash at such a vanity project. Whatever else you may think about it, you have to admit that they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Posted on 6th May 2008
Under: Classics, Epics | 4 Comments »

Getting Hitched - ‘A Comedy about a Corpse’

After writing about Rear Window the other week, I couldn’t wait to get back to the Alfred Hitchcock boxset and the next title in the series. Though the set contains some undoubted Hitch gems, it also houses a number of lesser known films, or at least titles that don’t have the same level of kudos as the aforementioned Window, Vertigo or Psycho. One such example, and a movie I saw for the very first time before writing this, is today’s topic, a departure for Hitch that took him into the realms of lighthearted black comedy.

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The Trouble with Harry started out as a novel (by British author, Jack Trevor Story), was adapted for the stage, and later Hitchcock bought the screen rights for $11,000. Upon its release, it was deemed to be a flop, yet its subsequent success in European cinemas enhanced its reputation, and TTWH probably made its money back after another round of American screenings. Perhaps surprisingly, it was to be one of Hitch’s personal favourites. When asked in 1974 about his body of work, TTWH was one of four movies the director claimed he wanted to have staying power with audiences (The 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt and North by Northwest, since you’re wondering), and perhaps it isn’t that difficult to see why. Whilst Psycho and Vertigo are acknowledged masterpieces, they’re both dark pieces of work that explore the grim recesses of the human soul. Our Harry, on the other hand, is never less than fun, and I suspect Hitch hoped the movie would reflect his own sense of humour.

The Trouble with Harry posterCertainly, TTWH is a good laugh. Its simple yarn, which is based on the discovery of a dead body laid amongst the autumnal trees of a New England fall, turns into high farce as the story progresses. Hitch proved he could find wit amidst the usually morbid subject of somebody’s death. And as usual, the plot, which follows the fortunes of four characters who are in different ways linked to Harry, produces so much more from its focal point. Throw in a Bernard Herrmann score (the composer’s first collaboration with Hitch), some great performances, and a tone that sustains a light, breezy atmosphere, and you end up with a film that might not be a Hitchcock classic, but by most people’s standards is well worth a second look.

Harry, the movie’s central character has no lines, doesn’t move of his own accord, and we see little of him beyond his feet, which are wrapped in blue socks with gaudy red toes. That’s because Harry’s dead. Lying flat on his back in the woods, a hole in his head that might have been made by a bullet or a shoe heel, Harry’s unfortunate corpse comes into contact with a number of the local town’s denizens and very nearly gets several of them into peril.

The film opens with a shot and raised voices, shortly before a small boy discovers the body. Herrmann’s typically ominous score suggests only one thing - murder most foul. Elsewhere amidst the trees is Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn). Out to shoot rabbits, but showing no success for his efforts, the softly spoken gentleman blames himself for Harry’s death. He must have shot him by accident, Wiles argues to himself, and so he sets about preparing to bury the evidence. Whilst doing so, he comes across Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick), who shows next to no concern about finding someone hauling a dead body along by the feet (’What seems to be the trouble, Captain?’) and instead invites him over for blueberry muffins and coffee. Harry’s wife, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine), also finds the corpse. In another movie, her lack of remorse over his death would be at least callous, and certainly chilling. Here, it’s farcical. Local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) gets roped into the Captain’s plan to dig a grave for Harry, that is when he isn’t dreaming about the lovely Jennifer, and the possibility of selling a painting or two.

Ultimately, Harry winds up as a bit of a plot device, albeit a troublesome one as his very presence becomes a burden for those who would be rid of him. What the film’s really about is the web of relationships that develops between the other characters, all of whom have been drawn together by him. Sam fancies Harry’s widow, and his attempts to woo her form a major plot strand. More charming by far, however, is the faulting courtship between Wiles and Ivy. Neither is very confident - the Captain frets about not making a fool of himself, whilst Ms Gravely gingerly buys a special cup and submits to a haircut, all to prepare for her blueberry muffins date. As the quartet move closer together, they find more and more labyrinthine ways to dispose of Harry. His poor corpse is buried and dug up several times as the characters look for reasons to shake him off quietly or let the authorities come across his body.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Shirley MacLaine’s big screen debut. The movie was unavailable for public screenings for nearly thirty years when Hitchcock bought back its rights and left it in legacy to his daughter. By the time it was re-released in 1984, MacLaine had become Hollywood royalty, fresh from her Oscar winning turn in Terms of Endearment, and fans got to see a much younger and prettier model in this lost vintage. In the winning role of Jennifer, she’s all charm, heartbreakingly pretty and the very epitome of a 1950s modern girl. It’s impossible not to see what would have attracted Marlowe to her.

Our heroes wait patiently for Harry's re-releaseYet hers isn’t the lasting performance. This honour goes jointly to Gwenn and Natwick. Their characters are twee and loveable without ever becoming mawksome. The former, an Oscar winner himself (he was Kris Kringle in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street) is a delight, his soft English accent - retaining its trace of his London roots - giving him the harmless exterior that turns out to be just as true on the inside as he wraps himself up in doubt over what to do about Harry, and the lovely Ms Gravely. Natwick is similarly superb and wonderfully funny as the highly strung Ivy, who also believes she has something to do with Harry’s demise when not getting herself worked up over the Captain. Theirs is a charming middle-aged relationship, and you’d put money on their connection lasting much longer than that between Jennifer and Sam, such is the chemistry between them.

Perhaps the weakest link is Forsythe, who ought to have the plum role as our likeable young hero who gets the girl, but who never seems entirely at ease with it. For one thing, Sam is supposed to be a struggling artist, but he looks every inch the dandy, your wealthy man about town. He’s broke, yet he lacks nothing in self-confidence. It isn’t really his fault. Who wouldn’t recede when sharing the screen with acknowledged top drawer thespians, and a young actress who was destined for greatness? Forsythe is easy enough on the eyes and doesn’t put too much of a foot wrong. He just isn’t quite as memorable as his peers, and it’s unlikely you’d watch the film again on his account alone.

Forsythe’s slightly uneven presence aside, there’s little about TTWH that’s open to criticism. Hitch was enjoying his own golden age whilst making the movie, and it’s clear that this is a very polished piece of work. All the same, it can’t help but fade when compared with the director’s recognised greats of the 1950s. Partly this has to be down to its tone. TTWH is frothy and light. It’s almost as though Hitch made it to shed off some of the heavy-going material he was working with at the time, such is its leisurely pace and characters who appear to have few skeletons lurking in their closets (though at one point in the movie, that’s more or less exactly what they’ve got). Some of the film’s scenes take place during the night, yet overall this is a piece made for daylight, a glorious fleshy autumn filled with dying leaves, blue skies, and the local doctor tripping over the corpse during his constitutional, only to obliviously pick himself up and move along. The town is filled with nice people. Even Royal Dano’s doubting deputy sheriff comes straight out of Bedford Falls; it’s a place where nothing bad really happens and even terrible catastrophes can be resolved.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Harry marks a delightful change of pace, a nice, funny piece of work that has real heart going for it. If it isn’t perfect, then that’s because Hitchcock was doomed to be better when handling darker material, the pinnacle of which was still to come. As a lighthearted ninety minutes of entertainment, however, it takes some licking. Many have tried, and very few have succeeded in exceeding its easy charm and good-natured wit, and you end up wondering just how much of himself the master put into it.

My favourite bit? Undoubtedly the scene where the captain is walking into town and spies a police car in the road. Carrying his rifle, the firearm he believes killed Harry, he tries to hide it inside his jacket, before opting to hold it against his leg and affect a limp to shield it as he strolls past the cops. Gwenn carries the moment splendidly, a bag of nerves trying to manage a blithe greeting while all around him, Herrmann’s flutes maintain a slightly mocking lilt.

Posted on 3rd December 2007
Under: Classics, Hitchcock | No Comments »

Getting Hitched - ‘In deadly danger… because they saw too much!’

Back to the Alfred Hitchcock boxset (hey, I might have seen it all by 2010!), and to one of its absolute gems, an all-time classic that sits currently at #14 on the IMDb’s top 250, and possibly higher still in the minds of many who have seen it.

Rear Window (1954)

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to commenting on this movie. What is there really to say about it, apart from ‘It’s good, very good?’ There’s barely a frame of its length that isn’t beautifully weighted. Its suspense is cranked up gently and neatly, generally by performers who are all masters of their craft and at the top of their game. As James Stewart says at one point, ‘It’s perfect.’ But then, you all know that.

Jimmy Stewart and the Princess in Rear WindowI imagine the meeting where this film was pitched, and wonder how Hitch did it. ‘Well, you see, it’s set entirely in a block of flats. The main character is recovering from a leg break, and spends his time observing his neighbours. One day, he sees what he believes to be a murder, and ropes his girlfriend and nurse into finding out if it’s true.’ ‘And then what happens, Mr Hitchcock?’ ‘Er, that’s it, really…’ What nobody could have predicted is that Rear Window would turn out to be Hitch at his finest, using the claustrophobic setting to explore his world in great detail, fleshing out the most minor of characters, and proving that suspense and danger can take place anywhere, even next door.

Through the eyes - and sometimes lens - of Jimmy Stewart’s hero, LB Jefferies, his small apartment block is transformed into a microcosmos of life itself. There’s Miss Lonelyheart, ever searching for a nice guy. The Newlyweds enter a flat and pull down the blinds. Miss Torso entertains a succession of men, but does she actually like any of them? In its extended first act, the camera settles lazily on the block, drifting from window to window and introducing each character in their enclosed, usually non-speaking little enclaves. It also gives us an opportunity to share Jeff’s boredom. Fed up with his injury and exile from the world of war photography, the main character has little to do but stare out of his window. The movie starts with little tension. Jeff’s main concern is whether he should marry Lisa (Grace Kelly), or break things off with her. It’s clear he doesn’t really want to do the latter, yet he’s preoccupied with the wildly different lives they lead.

Soon enough though, something happens to really get him started. Across the tenement, Lars Thorwald’s bed-ridden wife vanishes after Jeff hears a scream in the night. Has she gone away? Or has Thorwald (Raymond Burr) done murder? Jeff begins to suspect the latter, and draws both Lisa and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) into his amateur sleuthing. It’s at this point the plot begins to kick in nicely, little clues and occurrences being added to the mix to keep everyone guessing. Jeff’s detective friend doesn’t believe him. Neither should we. One evening, as our hero sleeps, a woman leaves Thorwald’s apartment, presumably Mrs Thorwald, and clearly we’re supposed to think that Jeff’s detective work will lead to naught once the truth emerges. But what is the truth? And is Jeff right all along?

Naturally with Hitchcock, the murder device is only part of the reason for watching Rear Window. Featuring a small, neat cast and one location - virtually the entire story takes place from Jeff’s flat - the movie turns into a tight little affair. It’s entirely character driven, and the claustrophobic setting gives us an opportunity to study everyone in Jeff’s world. As we move from apartment to apartment, we get to peer into the lives of a variety of people, most of whom have nothing to do with the main plot and have no interaction with Jeff, but become characters for whom we care. Is it just me, or does everyone’s heart sink when Miss Lonelyheart invites a man into her flat, and what looks like being a promising date becomes a moment of horror and sadness? Miss Lonelyheart is a tangential character, but we see enough of her to be concerned in her seemingly endless search for love.

None of it would work without the leads being note perfect, and fortunately for Rear Window it has James Stewart and Grace Kelly on the books. This is my favourite film starring the Princess, and by some distance also. I think in this one Hitch really captures her almost unearthly beauty better than at any other time. It helps that she makes the ideal entrance, appearing before Jeff ethereally and in silence as she moves in for a kiss. As for Stewart, Vertigo remains my ultimate choice as his best performance for Hitchcock (and where virtually anything else is concerned also), but he’s still fantastic in Rear Window. Always a reliable lead actor, here he’s grumpy, irascible, cheeky, and showing worrying signs of developing a ‘Peeping Tom’ syndrome. He’s also very good fun. The camera is either focused on him, or watches what he watches all the time. He needs to engage us, and he does without, it seems, a flicker of effort.

One of RW's minor characters, with a director making his customary cameo appearanceAnd as ever with Hitch, the ‘little things’ in Rear Window are what make it truly great. This is the fourth time I’ve watched it, and even now I’m picking up on new elements that perhaps didn’t strike me on a previous viewing, the mark of a genuine classic. One scene in particular stood out. It’s dusk, and Jeff is studying Thorwald’s apartment. He’s using binoculars, and at one point he stops and stares at them, a look of disgust on his face. Aha! we’re supposed to think, he’s suddenly realised how stupid he’s being, the idiocy of surveying another man’s flat. He should just do something else instead. And then of course Jeff picks up his telescopic camera lens intstead because it provides sharper focus…

I was prepared to offer a revisionist view of Rear Window, to perhaps suggest it isn’t as good as it’s cracked up to be. But it is. The film is magnificent, delightful, and much better fun than its slim story surely deserves. The vast majority of you will know all this already, but if you haven’t seen it, you must stop what you’re doing and find a copy immediately. Rear Window is film making at its finest.

Christmas present alert! I handed my forty quid over in HMV the other day for a copy of the Ultimate Hammer Collection, and was then made to wait until Christmas to receive it - boo! Anyway, I can’t wait to sink my teeth into that set of classics, decent efforts, utter tosh and Valerie Leon, and record the results on this here blog. But that’s for 2008, when I might - and should - sort those bloody categories into something that makes sense.

Posted on 25th November 2007
Under: Classics, Hitchcock | 7 Comments »

Login     Film Journal Home     Support Forums           Journal Rating: 4/5 (10)