A Left-Handed Form of Human Endeavour

A collection of musings about the second golden age of movies.

I’ve been very busy reviewing things for DVD Times recently and my latest piece is on Tim Burton’s rather wonderful Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. You can read my thoughts on the UK R2 Disc - due out tomorrow- here.

One of the merits of The Boys From Brazil is that it remains one of the very few watchable films churned out by Sir Lew Grade in the seventies. Lew, now no longer with us, was an old-style entrepreneur whose idea of film production was to spend forty percent of the budget on stars, forty percent on locations and then excavate a script and keep a director awake for long enough to get something halfway acceptable in the can. How else can we explain The Cassandra Crossing - in which Martin Sheen gets plague and Lee Strasberg keeps getting concentration camp tremors - or Escape To Athena - in which Sonny Bono plays a Greek partisan and Roger Moore is a nice Nazi. Both of those were directed by George P. Cosmatos, whose amusing surname is an indicator of the interest level of his films (Rambo and Tombstone honourably excepted). However, more talented film makers were known to take the Grade shilling, none more illustrious than Franklin J. Schaffner, maker of Patton and Planet of the Apes. Presumably, it was the latter which suggested he might be a good choice for a fast paced, SF thriller based on a
bestseller by Ira Levin.

The Boys From Brazil has a marvellous premise, which isn’t particularly believable but is handled - in the novel - with great verve so that it seems possible. On screen, however, it just seems rather silly. We begin in Paraguay, where an obnoxious Jewish boy, played by the then mercifully unknown Steve Guttenberg, discovers that Dr Josef Mengele is bringing together some of his Nazi associates to carry out a particularly heinous plan. This involves the deaths, over a three month period, of 94 elderly men, all of them civil servants and all with younger wives and one teenage son. What could they be planning, wonders Steve, who promptly rings up ageing Nazi Hunter Ezra Lieberman - not Simon Weisenthal, oh no - to inform him of his discoveries. Lieberman dismisses him as an obsessive crank, and ignores what he hears, until the phone suddenly goes dead and he senses the presence of “great evil” on the other end of the line. In fact, the phone in Paraguay has been picked up by Josef Mengele himself, after Guttenberg has met a welcome painful demise, thus preparing us for a mighty clash of the titans. Hammy Gregory Peck versus hammy Laurence Olivier.

It should be pointed out that Gregory Peck is not only miscast, he is completely out of his element. Playing Mengele, he never once convinces you of the evil soul of the man - instead, he has all the terrifying presence of a sheep in sheep’s clothing. The film portrays Mengele as a mad scientist, but Peck can’t bring off the ranting and he ends up seeming ludicrous. The part begs to be played by someone who can make evil seem dangerously attractive and who can rant convincingly - Peck isn’t cut out for it, and tends to look like he’s wandered into the wrong film in fancy dress. Olivier, on the other hand, is so well cast that he’s rather irritating. We get the same mittel-Europe accent we got in Dracula and The Seven Per Cent Solution, with a touch of his Colonel Sanders patriarch in The Betsy. He witters on, waving his arms about in patented lovable old fool mannerisms, and rolls his eyes so often he appears to be signalling a friend in the back row of the audience. However, and this is the difference between an efficient and highly professional actor like Peck and a great actor like Olivier, when called upon, Lieberman suddenly develops into a real presence, scarily intense, hard as nails and utterly ruthless. In one scene, the Nazi hunter meets a nurse from Auschwitz who has been involved in the plan. Olivier begins by looking frail, but the director concentrates on his face, and suddenly the film jumps to life. You see the bitterness, the anger and the effect of thirty years of the hunt. This doddery old geriatric has a core of steel, and you can see it all in his eyes. The delivery of the key line, “And you are not…going…anywhere” is inspired. This scene is great and it transcends the second rate melodrama that surrounds it. The film never recovers the dramatic intensity of this five minute scene. Olivier is very good at these short bursts of compelling confrontation - there’s a great scene between Van Helsing and the Count in Dracula, where he uses his eyes in similar fashion, and the best bits of The Betsy are when he gets his teeth into his pathetic son, Robert Duvall.

Anyway, back to the plot. At extreme length, the conspiracy is uncovered. Mengele, assisted by Nazi aristocrat James Mason - who is so bored he decides to use a comedy accent - has developed a technique to clone Hitler 94 times. Each clone child has been placed in the exact same domestic environment that Hitler experienced, and their adoptive father must die when they are 14, just as Hitler’s did. Whether or not this is scientific I don’t know, but it’s more interesting than the facile assumption that a clone would automatically turn out to develop in exactly the same way with no other outside assistance. Lieberman must, therefore, get to Mengele before Mengele succeeds in the plan. All is going as expected, until Mason reveals that the funding has been pulled and the plan has been called off. Mengele therefore decides to go for broke and execute the plan himself, using one of the clones placed in New England. Everything comes to a nasty end, after Olivier and Peck have had their big confrontation scene, with Mengele being ripped to pieces by some vicious dogs.

I’ve missed out a lot of the travelogue details that pad out the film, although there is one rather effective scene with horror stalwart Michael Gough being killed, after his lodger - the reliably pneumatic Linda Hayden, has had her throat slit in a rather surprisingly bloody manner. The supporting cast is good enough - nice to see Walter Gotell in something other than a Bond movie, and Lilli Palmer is great as Lieberman’s exasperated sister. But it’s all so slow, and the dialogue tends to consist of great whopping chunks of exposition as the characters walk around an expensive location. Schaffner pulls off individual scenes with some class, but his pacing is desperately off, and he never creates any real threat or tension. One problem is that the boy, Jeremy Black, who plays the clones that we meet - four of them, one with an appalling British accent - is not a very good actor, and is never convincing as any of them. The other is that the music score, by Jerry Goldsmith, is so good that it tends to upstage what’s going on upfront.

Perhaps another difficulty is that the film tries to be serious about Nazi atrocities while at the same time using them as titillation. There’s a particularly unpleasant surgery scene which has no other purpose than to be a bit of bloody sleaze. I have no real problem with Nazi-ploitation, but I don’t like it being accompanied by a high moral tone. This story is basically pulp, and not a serious document about the revival of Nazism, but Schaffner directs it as though it was completely serious. Also, and a bad sign, there’s a blackboard science session, something which I usually take as a cue to stop paying attention; see also Back To The Future 2 and Torn Curtain. This extended scene is meant to explain the plot, but it just slows the film up and gives yet more opportunity for Olivier to play his befuddled number.

Having said that, the film is mildly compelling and often very watchable. It looks fabulous and the cast gives enough indication that they know that the material is very silly to make it amusing rather than embarrassing. But that sense of horror, which should surely be at the heart of the story, is completely absent and the brief shock sequences look like they have been interpolated from another film entirely - and one which is probably a lot more interesting.

I haven’t written in this blog for the best part of six months and I thought it was about time to come back and try and define what I want the blog to be. There are many blogs on Film Journal which cover various niches and it’s not easy to try and make one of my own. If I have a ’specialist subject’ as it were, it’s American cinema between the mid-1950s and late 1970s but that’s a ludicrously wide range to try and include in one place. So what I’ve decided to do is, firstly, narrow the range to the period between the final breakdown of the production code in the mid-1960s to the end of the era of the directors at the beginning of the 1980s. Secondly, I want to write about American movies in a manner which would not necessarily be appropriate on DVD Times - the pieces may be ludicrously short, self-indulgently long or come from what might be called, if I were a martyr to cliche, left-field. I’m going to maintain the blog title, even though it comes from a 1950 film, because it seems to me as good a description of the essentially fraudulent art of making movies as I can find - as Brian De Palma said, “the camera lies, it lies 24 times a second”. Great directors are like great con-artists; they make us believe completely in their illusion and then, two hours later, reveal that it was nothing but a few still pictures and persistence of vision. When we break our belief, even for a second, the illusion stands revealed as a shoddy charade.

I am by nature an auteurist, perhaps through laziness. That’s why I will be routinely assigning films to directors without necessarily acknowledging the wealth of other talents behind them. Sometimes, this is self-evident nonsense - can we really doubt that Airport belongs to anyone except Ross Hunter or that Chinatown isn’t the product of a once-in-a-lifetime collisiion of the sensibilities of Robert Towne, Robert Evans and Roman Polanski? But it’s convenient and, I would suggest, more often true that it isn’t, particularly in the period under discussion when directors were being given an increasing amount of rope - and eventually managed to hang themselves with it.

I am afraid, as Bernard Levin was apt to write, that I have a very great deal to say. But I don’t want this to be a sermon. Make it a discussion and place your comments, I promise to reply. If you have any ideas for films I could cover - the more obscure the better - suggest them and I’ll try to track them down. Some pieces on the site have been seen on the internet before but all have been revised and updated. The posts below all fit in with the new focus of the blog and I will be indexing them as and when I get round to it.

Barbara Streisand was always a long way from being beautiful but she can, given careful lighting, be striking and memorable; not just for that amazing nose but for her eyes which frequently express more than the dialogue allows. In The Way We Were, she’s quite radiant, and superbly expressive - there is a lovely moment when Robert Redford nuzzles her neck and she allows us to understand both her intense erotic desire for him and a basic uncertainty and an unwillingness to succumb to physical pleasure. She has a difficult role here; spiky and unsympathetic with a lot of talking masking a basic emotional inarticulacy. But she manages to pull it off. It might be her best screen acting work although one longs to see her sing as well as hear her on the soundtrack. Like all great singers, Streisand opens up when she sings and to put her in a non-singing role is a waste - I feel the same about seeing Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson in dramatic roles, no matter how good they can be.

The Way We Were is a combination of grand romance between two megastars and a historical greatest hits package from the 1940s, tracing Streisand and Redford from their college days in the late 1930s to the McCarthy blacklists. It’s decked out with fantastic costumes and some totally convincing period detail, the contribution of the great Stephen Grimes. The overwhelmingly nostalgic atmosphere is blatantly designed to appeal to the 35-up age bracket who would still go and see a big movie provided it wasn’t dirty. The Way We Were isn’t remotely dirty, despite a couple of very discreet sex scenes, and it would probably benefit from a some life-enhancing vulgarity here and there. Still,in the class of big ‘clean movies’ of the period, it’s a lot better than either Love Story or The Great Gatsby, let alone the dreaded Mary Queen of Scots. Sydney Pollack is a sharp and efficient director who loves actors and gets work out of Bradford Dillman and Patrick O’Neal which neither actor has bettered. Pollack keeps the pace going and the film trundles along from set-piece to set-piece. If these seem weirdly disconnected, it’s because I don’t think the central relationship ever quite works. What is it that attracts these two people who have virtually nothing in common, not even a sense of humour? Arthur Laurents writes some good, bitchy dialogue but it might suit a gay couple better than these two, especially when Robert Redford seems oddly disengaged. He doesn’t have the intensity of a writer and, as so often in his roles during this period, he allows his hair and teeth to create the character for him. Indeed, Hubbell Gardner barely exists at all, especially compared to his mate, and the blankness of Redford suggests that he’s already getting prepared to play Jay Gatsby in the same irritating manner.

As a political study of an era, the film assumes considerable knowledge on the part of the viewer. If you’re uncertain about the Spanish Civil War or the HUAAC, then the film does not enlighten you with the basics. The pre-release editing which cut some of the blacklisting scenes doesn’t help in this respect. But it’s never made sufficiently clear that it was, at one point, considered patriotic to be pro-Soviet and that this was what got a large number of people into trouble after the war when America became fiercely anti-Communist. Then, the film posits a false black and white choice between Redford’s pragmatism and Streisand’s commitment without ever satisfactorily finding a middle road. Potentially important supporting characters played by Viveca Lindfors and Murray Hamilton drift in and out of the narrative without sufficient definition and, as a result, the political viewpoint of the film suffers. At heart, it’s an eminently liberal film and that’s heartwarming but the era needs a more complex approach than is provided here. I’d love to see a genuinely complicated film made about McCarthyism from a right-wing perspective if only because most films about the period - good ones like The Front and Good Night and Good Luck - simply preach to the converted. I’m a left-wing liberal but I think I am mature enough to have my prejudices challenged.

And yet, the nostalgic tug of the film is potent even for someone born well after the events it depicts. The music by Marvin Hamlisch is corny as hell but goddamit, it works and there are beautifully poignant moments. I particularly love the moment on the yacht between Redford and Bradford Dillmann - the pair make a more convincing romantic couple than Redford and Streisand incidentally, although that’s presumably unintentional. At the end, Streisand is heartbreaking because she underplays - far more moving, as a consequence, than she is at the end of A Star Is Born when she is allowed to go over the top or in any of the film she directed when she seems so fascinated by herself that nothing else gets a look in. I think she’s got one great role left in her but only if she looks back and remembers the virtue of keeping it down when she acts and blossoming forth when she sings.

I have a strange relationship with Michael Winner - or maybe I should rephrase that. I have a strange relationship with his films. Most of his work is in the realm between disastrous and hilarious, with the exception of his alleged comedies which are simply painful. I defy anyone to watch Parting Shots and feel the slightest elevation of the corners of their mouth at any point. On the other hand, thrillers such as Scream For Help, Firepower and the peerlessly stupid Dirty Weekend are so hysterically funny that they make most comedy films look like Ibsen.

Yet, I find myself drawn to some of his work in a slightly guilty way - like eating an Aztec bar, I know its bad for me but I can’t resist. I could, were I so inclined, defend the artistic merits of some of his films, particularly The Jokers, I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname and The Nightcomers. But usually I like them for the sheer aggressive energy of their silliness - the way in which virtually every second of The Sentinel contains something gratuitous, be it masturbating prostitutes, circus freaks or Burgess Meredith, or Death Wish 3 where Charlie Bronson lives in a part of America that looks like North London and buys a rocket launcher through the post.

Most of all though, I like Death Wish. I don’t like its politics; the usual reactionary right-wing bullshit designed to wind up bleeding-heart liberal souls such as myself. At the start of the film, Bronson’s work colleague suggests putting the underprivileged in concentration camps to stop them committing crime and the film seems to end up agreeing what that sentiment. In the book by Brian Garfield, the hero Paul Kersey ends up becoming as much part of the problem as part of the cure and one suspects that, had the film been made by Sidney Lumet and starred Jack Lemmon (as originally planned), this would have been more faithfully represented. All the muggers and rapists killed by Bronson are not only sub-human scum but total sociopaths who behave in a manner which is so reckless that it beggars belief. Quite apart from anything else, there are so many of them. How does anyone survive in New York when you apparently can’t turn a corner without someone trying to kill you (whether because they’re a mugger or think you are a mugger).

But… Death Wish is a very well made film which is suspenseful, exciting and entertaining. Winner paces it at one hell of a lick, refusing to offer any time for the audience to have second thoughts about what they’re seeing. The script by veteran Wendell Mayes is a model of ruthless efficiency and spiced up with some welcome humour, particularly from Vincent Gardenia’s cold-afflicted cop. Best of all is Arthur J. Ornitz’s cinematography. A veteran of movies about the city, he makes this one of the definitive New York films of the 1970s; the look of the film is very similar to that of his previous film Serpico, which was the film Lumet made instead of this one.

And Bronson is just brilliant. Say what you like about his acting - although it’s nothing to be ashamed of - his presence is phenomenal and absolutely grounds the film in reality. He is convincing both in the early scenes, where he’s required to have a couple of potentially embarrassing breakdowns, and in the later action moments. Whatever Bronson does, you believe in him and that’s totally crucial to the success of the film. I don’t think that Steve McQueen (another potential candidate for the role) would have had the same effect, nor would Clint Eastwood. Death Wish is one of Bronson’s two signature roles - the other is Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West - and it’s certainly one of the films by which he deserves to be remembered. I would also suggest that if we’re going to remember Michael Winner, it would be kind to use this as a memorial rather than to recall his ludicrous TV appearances, multiple face-lifts (so I hear) and gruesome romantic life.

A couple of minor points - why are District Attorneys in 1970s films either slimy double-dealers or lily-livered liberals (see Josef Sommer in Dirty Harry)? And don’t you love the way Stephen Elliott makes ‘laboratory’ sound like ‘lavatory’ at the press conference.

Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas) is a successful advertising executive who has everything but he’s still not happy. So one day, on his way to work, he deliberately crashes his car in an effort to get himself out of a rut which, he feels, is killing him.

This is the beginning of Elia Kazan’s 1969 film The Arrangement, based on his bestselling novel, and it’s soon clear that what we’re witnessing is the birth of a genre - the American Discontent Movie, later epitomised by John G. Avildsen’s Save The Tiger and Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. Like the characters played by Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey, Eddie Anderson represents a tumour at the heart of American society which needs to be cut out. But whereas the later films end in despair and doom, The Arrangement is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. It’s about the precedence of art over commerce - the hero wants to be a writer but has been sidetracked into the sordid world of advertising where he has been busy designing a campaign to persuade the world that Zephyr cigarettes are ‘clean’.

The irony, one which almost certainly didn’t occur to Elia Kazan, is that The Arrangement is as commercial as all get out, a big, brashy soap opera which pretends to be dealing with important things but is actually both superficial and, ultimately, platitudinous. None of the characters have any more depth than you’ll find in a novel by Harold Robbins and this means that virtually nothing is at stake when Eddie is choosing between Deborah Kerr and Faye Dunaway - they are both immaculately dressed and coiffured, both are endlessly patient with Eddie’s tedious self-examination, so it’s rather like making a decision as to whether you’d rather have cappucino or latte. They’re also both looking very good, though I have to express a decided preference for Deborah’s striking hair over Faye’s; the latter seems to bleached all the colour out of her blonde locks for reasons which escape me.

But really, it’s all too silly for words. Deborah Kerr is a very good actress and she came to this straight after her nude tumble with Burt Lancaster in The Gypsy Moths, but she’s not exactly a natural choice for an LA society matron and her cut-glass English accent suggests an education at Cheltenham followed by a Swiss finishing school. It’s rather embarrassing to see her given the kind of lines which an on-form Liz Taylor would have devoured (as she did brilliantly in Zee and Co) and when she disrobes to force herself on her reluctant husband, it’s a bit like watching your mother getting drunk. Meanwhile, Faye is hovering between malicious one-liners and cosy concern and also offering herself to any man who threatens to be bad for her. At one point I thought she was going to screw Eddie’s dissolute immigrant father (entertainingly played by a very hammy Richard Boone), but thankfully the moment passed.

Although it’s impossible to watch without giggling shamefacedly, The Arrangement is hugely enjoyable if you get into the spirit of it. Like Vincente Minnelli’s lush soaps Two Weeks In Another Town and The Sandpiper, it contains plenty of melodramatic diversion and the cast is packed with familiar faces. Kirk Douglas, in the central role, holds it all together by being, well, Kirk Douglas and he’s obviously having a great time, especially when he gets to romp around naked with Faye Dunaway on the beach. It also looks absolutely fantastic, thanks to the genius of cinematographer Robert Surtees, working in Panavision and rich, often stylised colour. Kazan’s direction is also often impressive, using a variety of techniques to create something very different from his earlier work - slow motion, comic-strip captions, speeded-up dialogue, muting the sound, flashbacks within flashbacks, special visual effects to simulate Eddie’s consciousness. It may be showing off but it certainly keeps you watching.

The Warner Brothers R1 DVD is a good package which presents the film to good effect with a superb transfer and a crisp, clear soundtrack. There’s also a brief vintage featurette in which everyone present talks up Kazan’s genius, including Kazan, and the original trailer, which is too pompous for words.

Sometimes a film is so remarkably prescient that it doesn’t really matter that it’s not very good. Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes is a perfect case in point. It’s sloppy, poorly plotted and often ineptly acted but what it manages to do is very interesting. A couple of years before the Watergate revelations, Lumet’s imagery creates a world in which everyone is being bugged, to one extent or another. The narrative is propelled forward by taped conversations in which all the participants seem to have been caught unawares.

It’s such a powerful theme that Lumet’s inability to make anything of it seems particularly disappointing. The tapes turn out to have little relevance to the plot and only in one scene at the end does the bugging really come into its own. One suspects that the tapes are there simply to mask the fact that this is a very conventional heist movie indeed and not a particularly good one. It’s paced inconsistently so that the headlong rush of the first twenty minutes suddenly slows to a crawl - particularly disastrous since there are few twists and turns to speak of. Worse still, the characterisations are often wildly off the mark with the usually reliable Martin Balsam embarrassing himself as an ultra-camp interior designer. It’s also a weirdly tossed-off piece of filmmaking. Arthur J. Orintz’s cinematography is TV-movie flat, making little of the New York locations and Lumet’s legendary speed seems to have led to some uncorrected fluffs in the dialogue. I’m also unconvinced by the odd switches in tone towards the end, when the light-hearted comedy-thriller turns into a bleak morality tale.

But there are compensations. Three in fact. Firstly, there is Frank J. Pierson’s dialogue which, when not overdosing on the epithet “Fag!”, is often very witty indeed. Secondly, Dyan Cannon is perfect and very sexy, if underused, as the female lead. Most of all, though, there’s a commanding performance from Sean Connery as the mastermind of the heist. His natural style and charisma holds the film together and actually makes it seem like something is at stake. Virtually single-handed, he makes the film worth catching up with.

This piece is about six years old but I’m quite pleased with it so I present it here. It will, with some revisions, form the basis of an upcoming DVD Times review.

John Boorman is a master of visual style and his films are full of images which
are hard to forget. Unfortunately, he has often saddled himself with ineffective
scripts which have been weak on dialogue and sometimes lacking sufficient
narrative cohesion. The best example of this is Exorcist 2 The Heretic which
is a wonderful piece of film making as long as you don’t attempt to follow the
plot or listen to what the character are saying to each other. Even a film as
good as Excalibur is constantly dragged down by clunking expository dialogue.
That said, at least Boorman has a truly cinematic vision - he thinks big and
isn’t afraid of making an idiot of himself. This is cinema at its grandest and
most ambitious , and Boorman has the same taste for extravagant follies as
Griffith, Welles and Huston.

Boorman’s best film remains Deliverance, largely because two sensibilities hit
each other straight on and the result is highly effective. James Dickey’s
poetic, ambiguous novel is a perfect match for Boorman’s visual flair - and the
script by Dickey himself is much better than the work Boorman did with the
dreaded Rospoe Pallenberg. The dialogue is terse and convincing, doing the job of revealing the true nature of the story - how man and nature are inextricably linked.

Incidentally, a word about genre. What makes Deliverance fundamentally a horror film is that it confronts deep fears about what might be lying in wait for us beyond the city limits, and suggests that the greatest horror might just be human beings and what they are capable of - and having used this for a stunning scene of
brutality, the accusation is then swung around and levelled at us. It’s a film
about the dark corners of humanity, and as such fits into the genre very nicely.
Let alone the fact that the climb up the bluff in the dark is a classic bit of
horror-suspense, and the central rape scene is shocking and disturbing. Then
there’s the final great image of the hand rising from the water, a classic
horror sign-off.

The plot is simple. Four city dwellers, Ed (Jon Voight), Lewis (Burt Reynolds in
one of his most interesting performances that proves his talent once and for
all), Drew (Ronny Cox) and Bobby (Ned Beatty) take a weekend trip into the
backwoods to canoe down the Cahulawassee river. They look out of place - which they are - and uncomfortable - except for Lewis who is in his element going back to nature and treats everything as a test of his manhood. Their first meeting with the locals is seemingly friendly, as Drew plays “Duellin’ Banjos” with a withdrawn child. However, the scene turns slightly sinister when Drew tries to shake the boy’s hand and is rejected out of hand. Bobby’s reaction is “Give him a couple of bucks”, as if the country was there solely for their entertainment and patronage. Boorman builds an incredibly economic sense of an
alien world, beyond the comprehension of outsiders - little details, like the old woman tending a sick child in a derelict shack, speak volumes, as does the joke scene where Lewis and Ed are unable to find the river - which is, as they are informed by the delighted locals - “Only the biggest fucking river in the State”.

Of course, the river - treacherous, massive, bringer of life and death - is a
metaphor for all the things that the urban lifestyle has shut out of modern
life. Three of the men treat it as a big laugh, but Lewis has the hunter’s
respect for his quarry - he points out that you don’t beat the river. There is
something inexpressibly poignant in the oft-repeated scenes of sand and gravel being pumped into the valley by huge cranes. Something is being lost in contemporary living, and the need for man to capture it before it goes is one of the classic American themes. The irony is that in it’s dying moments, the river proves to be the undoing of the men, as if it is asserting its power once and forever before man attempts to tame it. I’m rambling, but this central theme of loss is central to several of Boorman’s films - remember Lee Marvin unable to comprehend the fact that there is no money to recover in Point Blank, or the story of the end of the age of magic in Excalibur, or the joyous celebration
of childhood in Hope and Glory?

The four men initially enjoy their trip through the rapids - Bobby is patronised
endlessly by Lewis, who calls him “Chubby” and considers him incompetent. But
there are little sinister touches - my favourite is the moment when the men see
the banjo boy standing on the bridge, staring at them emotionlessly. After the
first night rituals - sitting round the campfire, making banal philosophical
statements, singing sentimental songs - Ed goes off to kill an animal, and prove
his manhood to Lewis. We are already aware that Ed is a man of thought rather
than action, although Lewis seems to respect him more than the others. Ed’s
failure to shoot a deer will have a big significance later on, but he seems to
regard it as a failure - the first of two that day.

Ed and Bobby set off in front of the other two men, and travel gently
downstream, stopping for a rest in a shady grove. They see two men weaving in and out of the trees and try to be friendly. But their efforts to communicate are greeted with hostility, and soon the two men, who appear to be hunters, have taken them into a clearing at gunpoint. It has to be said that the two hunters are as frightening as any human monsters ever to appear in a film. True, they appeal to a racist stereotype of hillbilly types, and one of them has the worst teeth in any film set in the recent past. But Bill McKinney - a fine actor wasted in too many identical roles, but watch his lovely comic turn in Bronco Billy and admire his subtle wit - is genuinely terrifying; self-righteous, determined, brutal, he decides to teach the city dwellers a lesson they won’t forget. He compares Bobby to a boar, having forced him to strip, and after riding him declares “He’s not a boar, he’s a sow” and forces him to squeal. Bobby’s efforts prove unsatisfying, and so McKinney declares he will give him a reason to squeal and then rapes him. It’s a horrible sequence with a queasy fascination, and Beatty is brilliant in it. Going beyond the call of duty, his face registers genuine terror and pain and humiliation - we sense that jolly, fat Bobby has had more than his share of humiliation in his life and feels that this is the living end. Boorman refuses to show the rape in any detail, focusing on close-ups of Beatty’s face, and then cutting to Ed, who has been strapped to a tree. At least one writer has called the scene homophobic, but I don’t think it is. There’s no suggestion that McKinney is homosexual, but there is strong suggestion that he is on a power trip and is using Bobby in the most degrading way he can contemplate. Finally finishing with Bobby, he cuts Ed loose and discusses with his toothy pal what to do, whereupon toothy utters the immortal line, “He’s got a real pretty mouth ain’t he.” Before Ed is forced to “pray” for
the men at gunpoint, Lewis arrives - in a rather convenient nick-of-time manner - and shoots an arrow through McKinney’s chest. Toothy runs off, pursued by an oar-waving Drew, and McKinney dies in a protracted, painful manner. There’s a lengthy argument about what should be done with him, Drew insisting that they should tell the police about what happened. Drew’s naivety is punished a short time later, but he is outvoted by the others who decide to bury McKinney by the river, where he will be covered when the dam is built.

There follows a dangerous trip down the rapids by the men, who are now terrified and just want to get back to civilisation. But Drew is suddenly pitched out of the canoe by some force - possibly a gun shot - and Lewis is thrown into the river, seriously injuring himself. Drew vanishes and Lewis has to be ferried along in the remaining canoe - one having been rendered useless by the force of the water. Lewis then passes the responsibility for saving them to Ed, saying, “Now it’s your turn to play the game”. Interesting statement, as if it’s all somehow happening in a safe environment where they can leave and find each other undamaged by the experience. Interesting too that Drew is the one to be killed, since it was he who thought he could link with the backwoods at the start with the duet. Perhaps he is punished for his over-confidence ?

Ed, concerned that he could neither kill the deer nor save Bobby from being assaulted, decides to scale the bluff to find the surviving hunter, who is up there with a gun and seems to have picked off Drew. He climbs up at night, in a terrifying ascent which seems to last forever. Voight did his own climbing - the picture was apparently uninsured because of the dangers - and it’s obvious that the actor as well as the character is discovering new sides to his personality. Upon reaching the top, Ed is slightly awed by looking down at the power of nature, realising the mens’ insignificance. He manages, after a night’s sleeping, to shoot an arrow through the tormentor, although again the death is horrible and messy. Ed barely escapes with his life after falling into the water, and the dead body is left in the river, the hope being that it will just disappear. The three remaining men find Drew’s body, and take it back with them, hoping to explain it away as an accident. However, and this is the key point in the film, when they get back to civilisation, they can’t just leave the river and their experiences behind. Ed and Bobby are more nervous, more aggressive. Bobby’s beaming self-confidence vanishes, and the two men come to blows over the story they have to tell the police. The performances here are, again, incredibly subtle, especially that of Voight, who manages to appear completely
neurotic without going over the top.

The final touch in the film is the attitude of the Sheriff - played by James Dickey. His deputy turns out to be McKinney’s brother in law, and wants the men to be held for questioning, but the Sheriff’s attitude is more complex. He doesn’t quite let on whether he knows the truth or not, but he warns Ed never to return to the place, and he means it. The final scene is justly famous - a beautiful vista of the river surrounded by forest, suddenly interrupted when a hand rises out of the water. Again, the metaphor is obvious. You can bury the past, but you can’t destroy it. The dream haunts Ed and we sense, despite his return to his nice, comfortable life, that it always will. Ed has, after all,
revealed his true nature - behind the bourgeois trappings, he is just as much of a primitive as anyone else, and is capable of anything in the name of self-preservation.

The incredibly beautiful and evocative photography of the river and environs, by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, is intentionally at odds with the bloody, violent story and is probably the least subtle paradox in the film. But this is the best film about the clash between urban and rural culture, and it raises disturbing questions about whether there can be cultural hegemony in a place where everything is eventually reduced down to primitivism. The film is interesting because it doesn’t patronise the backwoods people, showing instead how the town people can’t understand a way of life which is so alien to them. That theme is also examined in Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, which is more exciting and less thoughtful. Also integral to the film is the need of modern man to find and master the beast within himself - Lewis asks Ed why, if he is so happy, he feels the need to go on these weekends - contrasted with the impossibility of ever putting the beast back in the box once you have let it out. In subduing the elemental - represented by the dam - modern man, at the same time, wants to embrace it. It’s this paradox which makes Deliverance so difficult to forget.

I’ve been trying to decide, as you do, whether The Deep is intentionally racist or whether that’s just an accidental impression created by some very crass plotting and characterisation.

I should perhaps explain. This isn’t merely an idle speculation brought on by too much free time (free time? ha!) but the result of two hours spent watching The Deep, a film which moves almost as slowly as Cat People and doesn’t have any of the redeeming visual flair of that movie. I had fond memories of the film, which I originally saw at the Leicester Square Theatre in 1977, and was eager to find out whether it lived up to my recollections but within ten minutes I realised that disillusionment was an inevitable as the loss of innocence and the end of summer.

The Deep is basically very dull, about as dull as a film including Jacqueline Bissett in a wet t-shirt could possibly be. Indeed, once you’ve savoured that sight, there’s not much else to do except loll in front of the screen as various bits of mild sadism and brutality are paraded in an effort to liven things up. To be fair, there’s also a wildly overacting Robert Shaw (complete with indeterminate accent which hovers between Ireland and Somerset) and an underused Eli Wallach. But Bissett, attractive as she may be, isn’t an actress and she doesn’t bother to create a character. Nick Nolte, as the beefcake interest, is a good actor under normal circumstances but he comes across here as the dumbest blonde in the Caribbean. The most engaging character is a huge moray eel with a nasty set of teeth.

The racism is largely of the old Hollywood variety in which various darkies threaten the heroes and ogle the heroine’s semi-naked body. But it’s given a nasty spin with the suggestions of voodoo and the notion that there’s something automatically suspicious about a black man with an interest antiquities. There’s one bit in which the black bad guys semi-rape Bissett during a voodoo ceremony which suggests that under every black man’s sharp suit is a savage waiting to spring out. I may simply be over-sensitive but it leaves a very unpleasant taste in the mouth - and it suggests that times have moved on in that such things didn’t even occur to my impeccably liberal consciousness back in 1977.

So is The Deep worth a look? Well, it’s not very bad and some of the underwater photography is very pretty. Ms. Bissett is also something of a knockout even with clothes on - you’ll note my liberal credentials don’t extend very far in the anti-sexism line. But John Barry’s score is lethargic and sets the tone for a film which someone - perhaps director Peter Yates - is taking far too seriously. It should be a romp but as the two hours drag on, it’s more like an ordeal.

A few things have always baffled me about Earthquake.

1. Why does nobody in authority believed anyone who says that an earthquake is imminent even when they are very well aware that they live in a part of the world which is particularly prone to such a disaster.

2. Why is Ava Gardner, still beautiful in the mid-1970s, made to look like a bad female impersonator?

3. Where did Victoria Principal get that extraordinary wig from?

Quite apart from this, the film has a number of obvious shortcomings. It’s one of the ugliest major films I’ve ever seen, looking like a very cheap TV movie - indeed, I’ve seen episodes of “Columbo” which looked better than this. This is a problem not only because its unattractive but because it doesn’t serve the special effects well at all. The latter are still halfway impressive but the matte paintings, good as they are, still look stubbornly like matte paintings.

It’s also undercast with a host of faces who are imported from television, often unconvincingly - Lorne Green looks uncomfortable without his horse and George Kennedy never even begins to look like a cop, tough or otherwise. Compared to “The Towering Inferno”, this is weak stuff indeed.

Worst, it’s not very entertaining. The opening hour is grimly slow, establishing characters who are never more than cardboard, and the second hour has about two set-pieces and a lot of tiresome running around. It’s not even unintentionally funny.

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