10th 09 - 2014 | no comment »

The Last Movie (1971)

Director: Dennis Hopper


By Roderick Heath

Before 1969, Dennis Hopper was one of many talented, young Method actors to drift west from the Actor’s Studio to Hollywood, if a flagrantly offbeat and arresting example of the breed. His blue eyes seemed to radiate an almost spiritual, romantic dissociation, as well as a potentially manic ferocity—Viking berserker and Celtic saint in one volatile package. At first he often played introverted characters, reciting dialogue with a halting, almost doleful style that could make each word sound like it was being pulled out of his mouth with pliers, or scraggly losers and reprobates, cannon fodder for he-men in many a western. Later he became famous for his jittery, showy rants and depictions of livewire souls. His pal James Dean had brought him into film work, and Hopper’s reputation for on-set insubordination almost ruined his career before it got going; after Dean’s death he was all but blackballed by the industry.


Indie filmmaker and long-time bohemian Curtis Harrington gave Hopper a lead role in the wonderful horror film Night Tide (1961), and his friend John Wayne eventually revived his acting career by insisting Henry Hathaway hire him for The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). Whilst keeping one foot planted in mainstream labours, Hopper was a driving force in the annexation of Hollywood’s hinterlands by the new bohemia. After he starred alongside friend Peter Fonda in a film written by another pal, Jack Nicholson, the psychedelic paean The Trip (1967) directed by Roger Corman, Hopper and Fonda developed their take on the zeitgeist. Fonda produced and Hopper directed the singularly successful film of and about the era, Easy Rider (1969). Low budget, rough and ready, a combination of Voltaire parable and satire with an essayistic exploration of alternative Americana, Easy Rider channelled diverse aspects of the European and American film styles to make a counterculture document with some credibility.


Easy Rider was a colossal success, making Hopper a cause célèbre and Hollywood’s official hippie. But Hopper all but invited being set up as public sacrifice and cautionary example. He feuded with Fonda over royalties, slipped in and out of a marriage to The Mamas & The Papas singer Michelle Phillips in two weeks, and let his indulgence in drugs go off the deep end. He was given $1 million by Universal to make his next film at a time when studios were throwing money at films about counterculture youth hoping some of it would stick. Hopper, however, couldn’t have been less interested in returning to that subject, and moved onto new, equally provocative territory. The result was an infamous debacle that once again sent Hopper into exile, branded an addict, nuisance, and professional madcap. He managed to turn this persona to his own ends when, against all predictions, he rehabilitated his career again in the 1980s. Hopper’s directorial legacy is scant, but, except for a largely dismissed final comedy Chasers (1994), it is also one of the strongest and most unique in American cinema.


Hopper had been kicking around the idea for The Last Movie since his experiences making a western at a foreign location in the mid ’60s, and he developed a script with Rebel Without a Cause (1955) scribe Stewart Stern. At first, he shot and edited togather a rudely expressive but essentially linear film. Legend has it that his pal the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky then mocked his straitlaced structure, and encouraged him to attack the film like an Abstract Expressionist slashing at his own canvas. That anecdote sounds a touch arch, however, as The Last Movie was clearly intended from the start to expand on the form- and mind-bending elements of Easy Rider, while essentially telling fans of that film to fuck off.


Such a radical take was an inspired, if doomed, enterprise. The Last Movie is a weird, loping, visceral work, an ill-starred fate already written into its texture. The Last Movie feels deeply personal for Hopper, as it depicts the movie world in a manner so alienated and troubled, so concerned with the effects of cinema fantasy on real life, it was transmuted into a monument to the desecration of cinematic form. The opening immediately immerses the viewer in a mystic ceremony studded with strange portents with a context that will only be revealed via looping cinematic time. The conclusion seems carefully contrived to appear like funding ran out before the filmmakers quite finished making their film. And yet The Last Movie’s conceits feel far less jarring than they might have at the time, certainly not nearly so much after the likes of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s and Christopher Nolan’s taxing experiments in film structuring, although Hopper’s work is deliberately more ragged than such later films, as it maintains an associative rather than merely rearranged visual logic. The Last Movie is a portrait of shambling wash-ups, existential angst, and the protean zones of culture, filled with some of Hopper’s most accomplished images and highly self-critical themes. Hopper works again with cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, whose special visual tones on Easy Rider became the signature of the Hollywood New Wave, to fashion an artefact that alternates lyricism, immediacy, disorientation, and estrangement. Hopper doesn’t give himself an easy part to play either, embodying a troubled, even swinish character—a stuntman and fallen cowboy named Kansas.


Kansas is, at the outset, working on a western partly about Billy the Kid, being filmed in Peru by Samuel Fuller. Fuller appears as himself in the film’s most sublime and resonant in-joke, as Fuller had been shown the door by Hollywood by this time in much the same way Hopper had been and was about to be again. The film Fuller’s making seems to be a mixture of the kind of shambolic post-western Robert Altman was making in Canada at the same time, (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971), with glimpses of mockingly awful vaudeville routines featuring gartered dancing girls, and Sam Peckinpah’s savagery, as a giant, comically brutal shoot-out sequence sees the two sides in a clannish range war exterminate each other, even gunning down the handsome deputy sheriff (Fonda) and his sweetheart. Early in the film, one of the stunt sequences of Fuller’s western is depicted, with another stuntman pulling off an impressively gruelling fall from a rooftop and through some scaffolding. Later, this scene is revealed as important in more than incidental fashion, as the stuntman who performed it died. Kansas stumbles through the early scenes dissociated, traumatised, and emotionally volatile. His troubled, scrambled inner world will dictate the outer reality depicted.


The spectacle of real death on the movie set gives impetus to a strange fantasia. At the very outset Kansas is glimpsed as a bloodied and shameful penitent amidst a crowd at a local religious festival, whilst an imperious, would-be Peruvian director wearing a U.S. Cavalry hat searches for a beauty to star in his “film.” This director-cum-warlord will claim and take over the abandoned sets of the Hollywood shoot, making these into a place of religious fervour for the locals. The district priest (Tomas Milian) has to perform his masses in the set’s fake church to reach his congregation. Hopper then loops the film back to a few weeks earlier, when the Hollywood crew was still working. Kansas hovers around the shoot, still dazed by death and irritating Fuller. The film crew successfully wraps up their production after depicting the death of Billy the Kid, which Fuller announces he wants done different and better than any previous version. At the wrap party, Kansas wanders through a tangled crowd of performers and revellers and finds amongst them various tableaux vivants unfolding before his eyes. Narrative alienation blends fascinatingly with the sense that Hopper is documenting his own dissociation from his apparent place as Hollywood’s king of hipsters, as he reduces the apparatus of stardom to cameo fodder: Kovacs’ gliding camera, surveying a world of cool film folk, with a lot of Hopper’s own friends and fellows dotting the crowd, engage in drop-of-a-hat sing-alongs, mini-happenings, and strange rituals.


A man is transformed into a woman by a group of masked faux-shamans in a glimpsed moment that seems to come right out of some Carlos Castenada-esque fever dream, and indeed, the influence of Latin American magic realism and spiritual writing traditions pervades The Last Movie as narratives of false life and false death segue hazily into abnormal rituals of real life and real death. Kansas retreats into the shadows and weeps, but tries to fend off solicitous interest from a friend. Hopper suggests an approach close to that of Easy Rider in early scenes where songs play like commentary on the soundtrack, but Hopper quickly fragments and then disposes of this refrain. He casts Kris Kristofferson and others as musically inclined crewmen on the film who play Greek chorus, and Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” scores footage of Hopper in character as Kansas roving on horseback like the Marlboro Man, the ideal, self-reliant frontiersman, only to have Kansas accidentally crash Fuller’s set in the middle of filming, stirring a torrent of abuse from the director.


Kansas is soon called on to participate in stunts himself, glimpses of which are interpolated throughout the film. The stunts require him to take the place of the dead man in jarring and difficult movements, like being jerked off a horse by a tether or swinging in on a guy rope, causing alarm and concern in one local extra working on the film, recognisable as the man later directing the fake movie. Once the film shoot concludes and the company disbands to return home, Kansas decides to stay behind and live in the mountain town with his local girlfriend Maria (Stella Garcia) in a house he starts building above the town. Their union is deeply carnal, and when they have sex in a waterfall pool, it proves embarrassingly close to a popular path along which the priest escorts children.


Islets of quintessential hippie romanticism early in the film see the pair framed against beautiful mountain vistas in flowered fields and other such pastoral refrains. But Kansas and Maria are far from being dippy young lovers, as Maria is happy to have hooked up with a rich gringo, and Kansas regards her as useful appliance. Emerging from his depression high on the spirit and beauty of his new home, but detached from the poverty around it, Kansas thinks big, dreaming up schemes to create a ski resort on snow-clad peaks. Kansas’ only local pal, Neville Robey (Don Gordon), claims to have a lead on a potential gold mine, and wants to dig up an investor to help him extract it. Kansas becomes his partner as the film productions he was expecting to exploit in the now-established location don’t come. One afternoon in a café where they play chequers, Neville gets Kansas to help him flirt with a pair of women who enter, Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams) and her daughter (Donna Baccala), the family of prominent American businessman Harry Anderson (Roy Engel). Kansas has the wherewithal to charm Mrs. Anderson, and manages to get them invited to dinner with the family, where Neville can lobby Mr. Anderson to fund their mine.


Here The Last Movie shifts into territory reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ studies in behaviour amongst the emotionally thwarted and morally bankrupt, as Hopper’s collective of exiled Americans get drunk, tell filthy jokes, flirt, and go out in search of a racy good time that will shock their stagnant nerves and fetid blood back into action. Neville drunkenly burbles sexy shockers like suggesting mother and daughter make out, whilst both Anderson and Maria carefully ignore Kansas’ increasingly overt moves on Mrs. Anderson and her all-too-eager appreciation of them. Hopper notes with a cold alacrity the mutuality of Anderson and Maria’s blind eyes, the former acquiescing for the sake of keeping his attractive wife happy and the latter for the sake of not rocking her fiscal boat as multiple forms of prostitution collide. The booze-sodden evening moves on to a local brothel, which Neville reckons is the town’s best entertainment venue, and they listen to a soaring-voiced folk warbler (Poupée Bocar) before retiring for more obscene delights as Kansas pays a couple of hookers to put on a sex act as floor show. Mrs. Anderson plainly wants to join the couple on the floor whilst lolling in autoerotic delight, framed between two pin-ups of a muscle man and a starved African child–the film’s bitterest, most direct portrait of first-world anomie in perfect symbiosis with exploitation. Kansas has to fend off the attentions of Maria’s former boyfriend/pimp who threatens him with a gun. Maria leaps up to intervene and rushes the man away, but Kansas is still drunkenly infuriated and he beats the hell out of her when she returns.


The sobered, chagrined Kansas tries to make it up to Maria, who demands a fur coat like Mrs. Anderson’s. Kansas goes to the Andersons to buy one, and Mrs Anderson, who confesses to her own sadomasochistic fantasies stirred by Kansas’ guilty confessions and the night’s pornography, agrees to give him her daughter’s. But she extracts her own price from Kansas, insisting he submit to her sadistic fantasies of abuse and control, making him kneel and receive slaps in the face. This movement of the film is so odd, mordant, and perversely fascinating that I would sing the whole’s praises even if the rest of it had been mere footage of Hopper pissing against a wall—which is just about what Hollywood and a lot of critics thought he did.


Colonialism is certainly a part-hidden target of the film as it regards the gravitational effect of American cultural apparatchiks and their infrastructure distorting the minds and lives of anyone with whom they come in contact. Money matters to Hopper’s characters, for, as in Easy Rider, a quixotic attempt to make money to buy “freedom” comes to the fore, swapping the previous film’s original sin drug deal for Kansas and Neville’s attempt to ascertain if the gold mine can really pay off for them. They head into the wilderness to check out the mine, in a story segue that explicitly references to Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): in fact, in a scene close to the end of the film, which seems to be a non sequitur flashback to this journey, Kansas and Neville are depicted arguing comically about details from Sierra Madre, which might be Neville’s only actual source of knowledge about gold mining.


Earlier in the film, the priest alerted Kansas to a novel and disturbing phenomenon that seems to have gripped his parishioners, and led him to the fake film village to see them “shooting” their own version of the film with equipment made of out of wicker, complete with fistfights that result in real blood and bruises. Kansas tries to show them how it’s done in the trade, but the director complains that “isn’t real!” Exactly what the fake shoot is supposed to be Hopper leaves ambiguous, but he makes clear he feels guilty for his participation in the hypnotic, reality-bending force of the movies and correlates them with other forms of imperial power. Kansas requests absolution from the Priest for playing his part in this. This activity seems initially a simplistic piece of monkey-see-monkey-do on the behalf of the locals, but soon comes to look rather more like a determined, ritualistic subsuming of the power of the invaders, a Promethean project of stealing the movie gods’ fire and also a religious festival. The finale invokes two different forms of such ritualised theatre, as film production and passion play meet in perfect mirroring.


Satires on the movie industry are plentiful, but very few are as brutally logical, original, and funny as The Last Movie. The Cavalry-hatted director combines the archetype of the filmmaker as authoritarian visionary with the canard of the Mexican bandit as well as the military overlord. He handles his “cast” and “crew” with great collaborative zest, but when someone doesn’t stick with the programme he takes action. Kansas tries to flee from their clutches, busting out of the prison he’s locked in because he realises that it is of course not a real prison. The director, however, pulls out a very real pistol and starts shooting at him as he rides away, clipping Kansas in the shoulder. The injured cowboy, dizzy from blood loss and hysterical, tries to find Maria in the brothel, where he starts a fight with bouncers and gets himself thrown out. He limps through empty, debris-filled buildings in perhaps the film’s most surreal-feeling sequence, filled with jump cuts and oblique framings that fragment perception, as the structures become dreamlike traps where past, present, and future become liquid and Kansas’ cognisance splinters, glimpsed in agony in mirrors in the midst of stone-walled, half-finished, or half-demolished structures, stumbling amidst piled and ruined coffins and religious paraphernalia. He recovers, ministered to by the priest and the director and found by Maria, who nonetheless falls under the influence of the director and announces she’s off to participate in a beauty pageant designed to pick a star for the film. Kansas stumbles back into the midst of the “film” as he searches for Maria and is swept up in the culmination of the strange rite, with the priest now playing along with his flock in uniting the worship of movies and Christianity. Kansas is imprisoned again, and Maria tetchily mocks Kansas’ appeals for help, believing the director won’t go so far as to actually kill him.


During his first exile, Hopper fostered a serious interest in photography and found traction in the field. Whilst the formal beauty and experimental élan of Kovacs’ photography is readily apparent, and many scenes play out in a coherent enough manner, Hopper’s photographic experience had given him a highly tactile, expressive sense of film as a tool to be used or abused. The Last Movie plays out in a high state of flux that occasionally stabilises, reality and film deliberately fragmented and confused. Hopper offers some obvious pokes at familiar structuring, like having his “A film by Dennis Hopper” title card appear 10 minutes into the film, and then the actual film title another 10 minutes later, and “scene missing” cards inserted in a manner that anticipates the fascination of recent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Andrew Bujalski with the film as an artefact. The Last Movie, as its title might well threaten, is a constant, boiling mass of cinematic style and antistyle, as Kovacs works in wild lensing effects and a jagged lexicon of film language. Godard’s Week-End (1967) seems to have been a specific influence, borrowing not just its name from that film’s baleful final title card, but much of Godard’s deliberately anarchic aesthetic. But whereas Godard emphasised theatricality and falseness in his mise-en-scene to mock the idea of verisimilitude, The Last Movie is more attentive to the immediate reality of its setting, capturing the weird atmosphere of its Peruvian setting with an often documentary immediacy: nature and place, if nothing else, still wield a transformative power over human dreams in Hopper’s vision.


Classically graceful tracking shots alternate with analytical, extended, meandering zoom shots, or handheld documentary-style shots with fish-eye lensing that create a mood of happenstance, overheated authenticity. One motif of the film lies in repeated, startlingly wide, long-angle panorama shots that seem to be trying to rupture the limitations of the frame and that often include someone sprawled dead or injured (or playing dead or injured) in the foreground. There seems to be an almost religious meaning behind this recurring shot of earth, sky, and fallen being in one vast arc of communion. Certainly there is such meaning in the recurring vision of a man stretched out either dead or being transformed, from the drag queen at the wrap party to the shots that conjoin Kansas and the soon-to-be-dead stuntman as both go through the rope stunt and finish up flat on their backs, and a later shot where an injured Kansas lies prone and agonised, time and space breaking up into barely liminal flashes. Christ-like postures are one of the signal clichés of male movie actors seeking to become the auteurs of their movies, whether directing or not, and Hopper certainly indulges that posture here, as Kansas fears he’s going to be the human sacrifice to set the seal on the movie-ritual. But the strangely beautiful refrain that represents the ultimate break-up of narrative in The Last Movie, showing Kansas running and falling as if shot but then getting up again. The resurrection that is so crucial to the Christ mythos is readily coherent in film where (nearly) every death is fake and resurrection immediate, and Kansas’ ritualised reengagement with the death that ended the “real” film restores the order.


Or does it? Hopper makes fun of the parable and his apparent irony, or rather reduces it to absurdist statement, offering up repeated takes of his “death,” each filmed in languorous slow motion. Hopper then lets the film trail off in shots as elusive as the early ones, noting bored-looking extras waiting for the star to enter the frame, and Hopper, Milian, and the “director” stumbling through abortive takes or halting, improvised comedy. A return to Kansas and Neville on their gold hunt calls back to the gently spacy humour of Easy Rider’s famous grass-and-firelight scene, before Hopper closes on one of his repeated shots, of a tree on fire in the midst of the film set—a shout-out to Cecil B. DeMille’s burning bush?—with an unidentified man hanging in the branches. The Last Movie is a supremely uneasy work, one that transmits both its filmmaker’s lack of faith in his art, but also his dynamic involvement with it. The Last Movie was dismissed and buried for a long time, and yet what’s striking is how much influence, or at least anticipation, it had. Francis Coppola revealed his affinity by borrowing the seamy nightlife venture for The Godfather Part II (1974) and then casting Hopper in the thematically, crucially similar Apocalypse Now (1979), whilst elements of the later cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Alex Cox, and some Latin American filmmakers are predicted with fascinating alacrity. Hopper himself finally returned from directorial exile via the work some regard as his best, the troubled-youth flick Out of the Blue (1980), which posited former easy rider as child-abusing drunk and progeny as apocalyptic punkette.

2nd 09 - 2014 | 2 comments »

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Don Siegel


By Roderick Heath

Few filmmakers more than 20 years into their careers can be said to have just come into their own—indeed, by that time, many have burned out or lapse into mere competence. Even fewer whose careers started in Hollywood’s classic studio era could have claimed such inspiration in the tumult of the mid 1960s, when audience and business shifts had left many familiar talents high and dry. Don Siegel defied the odds as he suddenly found himself a venerated hit-maker by the early ‘70s who eventually was elevated from B-movie craftsman to master and auteur. Having made the leap from Warner Bros’ in-house expert of montage cutting, Siegel directed terrific films from his debut film, The Verdict (1946), including The Big Steal (1949), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Line-Up (1958) and Hell Is for Heroes (1961), and his reputation amongst peers was strong—Ida Lupino, herself no slouch at directing, once confessed she hoped to be counted as a decent second-string Siegel. Siegel’s vertiginous visual sensibility, filled with alternations between godlike high angles and all-too-human, bruising closeness, a feel for both primal and urban landscapes as spaces that shape human action, a grip on both the studious grammar of classical filmmaking and expressive reflexes that could readily bend or break those rules armed him with tools that could absorb what he needed from New Wave filmmaking, ignore the rest, and still seem authoritative.


Siegel’s grouchy cynicism directed at the counterculture resulted in scabrous portraits in Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Dirty Harry (1971), but then he could pivot and reveal a sheer delight in bratty anti-authoritarianism and rejection of communal rules—key to Two Mules for Sister Sara. His most consistent theme was more subtle, however, one of individuals at odds with their milieu, unable to comprehend the niceties of coexistence with radically different viewpoints and social doctrines that try to force acquiescence on his instinctually, rather than politically rebellious heroes. This is one reason that the theme of a lone wolf working within a larger system or cause was one of his favourites, an attitudinal linchpin that would have a profound influence, particularly on Quentin Tarantino.


He wrestled with modernity’s teeming, contradictory emotions in a way mainstream audiences could understand and coalesce without feeling like they were being preached at by a message movie. Siegel could offer a cop or a criminal empathy at any given moment. He could provoke liberals by transferring a frontier law ethos to modern cities, and then pivot to anatomise contemporary urges to agitation and shifting social mores in contexts like scifi with Body Snatchers, or historical, as in Hell Is for Heroes, with its proto-beatnik hero adrift in the war zone, or even further back with anxiety over emerging feminism in The Beguiled (1971) in a Civil War landscape. Two Mules for Sister Sara, like its immediate follow-up The Beguiled, bespeaks of Siegel’s inherent love of such paradox, prefiguring the next film’s dark, eerie take on sexual and social dislocation in a playful fashion that resembles The African Queen (1951) remade by Sam Peckinpah. Indeed, Peckinpah was Siegel’s first major protégé, whilst Sister Sara stars his second, Clint Eastwood.


Like Peckinpah, Siegel’s oeuvre seems intricately macho, but could embrace femininity and lyricism at unexpected moments. Again, like Peckinpah, he found an ideal thematic landscape in the open zones of culture between the U.S. and Mexico. But whereas for Peckinpah that landscape offered a schism between worlds that held the possibility of continued romantic freedom on the one hand and familiar but encroaching control on the other, for Siegel it was closer to Shakespeare’s forests, a zone of anarchy where his heroes could roam free and where familiar demarcations become porous, not a no-man’s-land but any-man’s-land. Siegel could also make fun of himself more convincingly. Sister Sara, written by Albert Maltz, was based on a story by Budd Boetticher, himself a major director who had hit a career doldrum by this time, is even more explicitly Shakespearean in its use of disguise and uncertain identity, as well as gender comedy to entertain and tease.


Antihero Hogan (Clint Eastwood) is a mercenary and a former soldier in his country’s Civil War—what side isn’t mentioned. He’s looking to make a quick fortune and buy perpetual personal independence by aiding a community in the same process, in this case the Mexican Juarista revolt against French imperialism in the 1860s. Hogan’s intentions are hampered when he comes across a nun about to be sexually assaulted in the borderland wilderness by three ruffians, whom Hogan kills in quick order with both direct and cunning means. The nun calls herself Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), and Hogan is forced to carry on as her protector when she reveals she must not be found by patrolling French dragoons because she, too, is aiding the revolution.


When she learns that Hogan has been hired to help destroy a French fortress in Chihuahua, Sister Sara reveals intimate knowledge of the place because her church was next door. She suggests a raid on the fortress when the garrison celebrates its traditional Bastille Day bacchanal. Sara proceeds to drive Hogan batty with a mixture of basic physical appeal that he cannot move upon, and her dedicated plying of her religious calling, such as insisting on proper burial and prayers for her assaulters, and a dozen other daily impositions. Hogan’s general credulity for Sara’s vocational steadfastness is thus sustained even when she reveals some strange knowledge, as when she reassures him that God will forgive him for putting his hands on her ass in a good cause. She soon reveals stranger habits, as when she absconds with one of Hogan’s half-smoked cigars to indulge a few furtive puffs with the relief of a showgirl between matinees, and a surprising tolerance, nay, thirst for strong liquor. She’s no nun, of course, and he’s no knight in shining armour, so the interplay of deception and ignoble intention between her and Eastwood, and the tongue-in-cheek approach to sex and religion, ambles with an off-kilter pep. Eastwood rarely played a proper romantic lead, and he doesn’t exactly play one here either, as Hogan is a sensually crude being who has no thought for settling down. The film draws much entertainment value from forcing one of his taciturn warriors to deal with a disturbing female form that is, at first, painfully off-limits, and then his increasingly perturbed reactions to Sara’s provocations.


It’s not very surprising when late in the film Sara is revealed to be a prostitute well known by certain members of the army she’s declared war on. Sara’s act, however, is more than mere camouflage and not exactly a play for false veneration. It is certainly a good-humoured mockery of the theoretical disparity of the classic madonna-whore figuration as it’s pitted against Hogan’s arch masculinity, her habit merely exacerbating Hogan’s confusion before femininity whilst also calling into question his—and the audience’s—understanding of it. Sara makes theatrical displays of playing the good Christian, blessing her buried attackers with water and infuriating Hogan with the waste. Yet Sister Sara intriguingly conflates what is usually perceived as two different kinds of tolerance, that of the woman who’s so familiar with life’s rough side that a near-rape is just another day at the office, and that of the committed religious idealist who forgives her enemies out of divine assurance, and suggests there’s no essential difference as both stem from a degree of character slightly beyond the more reactive male. Likewise, the independence of the prostitute is conflated with that of the nun, defined by their communal life in an overtly feminine space (to wit, the conflation of nunnery and bawdyhouse in Shakespearean humour) that also renders them autonomous in many ways. But Sara remains something distinct from Howard Hawks’ famous tough women because, unlike them, she reveals herself not as above the usual portrait of femininity surviving in a macho world, but readily hewing to both sides of stereotype and proving herself more than able in both.


Sister Sara represents a fascinating intersection point for several approaches to the western, although its setting and scope of action partly elide more exact definitions of the genre, almost a final point of correlation before the genre started its decline through the ’70s. In the late ‘60s, the genre had been schismatically redefined by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and then by the ferocity of Peckinpah, unified by their emphasis on tactile, visual realism and harsher violence than oatsers had known in the past, but separated on deeper levels by their ways of conceiving the genre’s heroes and social inferences. Leone’s grand, archetypal approach was reacting to the “adult western” of the ’50s, uninterested in its psychological and truthful reflexes, whilst Peckinpah accused the older genre of naiveté and aimed right for its sanctities. Boetticher had been, along with Anthony Mann, the adult western’s most persistent auteur, and Boetticher’s intimacy with his material was always a great strength. He was fascinated by the way individuals paint their own internal hopes or neuroses upon the neutral landscape. Boetticher wrote Sister Sara, whilst Siegel borrowed Leone’s composer Ennio Morricone to lend his film some of the weird, perfervid atmosphere of the Italian style. He also annexed aspects of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and set about stitching together disparate influences with his own viewpoint in satirising the disparity between the individualist, macho hero and the woman who is in some ways tougher and more determined than him. To a certain extent, the film’s portrait of Hogan’s dizziness before Sara’s independence was reproduced on set as the practiced survivor MacLaine intimidated both Siegel and Eastwood, who finished up billed second for the last time until The Bridges of Madison County (1994), giving the finished film an amusing subtext.


Sara and Hogan’s voyage through the wilderness has a multiplicity of resonances, not just to thematically similar predecessors, like The African Queen, Black Narcissus (1947), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1958). There’s a playful take on Samuel Beckett in Sara and Hogan’s droll meandering through a blank and depopulated landscape, bickering half-romantically, half-irascibly. There’s a hint of Luis Buñuel in Siegel’s wry, schoolboy delight in profane conceits, where a whore is holy and holiness is whoring out to anyone on the side of the angels, as well as the general atmosphere of Mexico Buñuel perhaps grasped better than anyone else as an ideal stage for surrealist disparities. The film’s title points to a particularly Buñuel-esque joke: Sara’s mule has an injured foot, giving Hogan a chance to finally leave her behind in a small village, but Sara immediately kneels to pray before a roadside shrine, whereupon a farmer rides by with an another mule for which she’s able to arrange a swap. Morricone’s droll choral chants confirm divine intervention, though the result is an extremely uneven trade. Siegel borrowed Buñuel’s former cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, and he aided in creating a film that exemplifies the visual pleasures of early ’70s cinema. Figueroa captures the sun-burnished, raw, earthy hues of the Mexican landscape, dotted with the vivid colours humans drape themselves in or discharge, be it sweat or blood, and even the porcelain tint of MacLaine’s naked back, all with a sense of pungent physicality, immediacy, and crucial beauty.


Of course, if you don’t want to think much about what a film means deep down, Sister Sara is, first and foremost, a rollicking entertainment built around Siegel and Boetticher’s cleverness and exactitude as storytellers and painters of circumstance and event. Early in the film, as Hogan helps Sara elude the French, he takes her into a ruined hacienda where he might stand a chance in a firelight shootout and kills a lurking rattlesnake. Hogan sets up an ambush, placing loaded guns in old loopholes, ready to move from one to the other to maintain rapid fire, whilst the hidden Sara dissuades a searching soldier by grabbing up the tail of the dead snake and shaking it to make the man think there’s a lurking serpent. The ploy works, and the soldiers depart. Later, when the two are bunked down for the night in a small copse, Hogan hears strange scuffling sounds in the night, so he hoists Sara into a tree, pours out some gunpowder, and lights it to catch a glimpse of the intruding presence like a camera flash, only to find a group of refugees from the war. Sara’s garb gives her rare abilities to cross barriers and move unmolested through social contexts, if not the wilderness. This advantage backfires when she tries to collect information in a garrison town, only to be waylaid by some officers looking for anyone who can give last rites to their dying commander. The commander proves to be a man Sara herself helped assassinate, and she has to silence him before he can shout out at her in rage. Fortunately, he dies right away, and Sara takes comfort in a long swig of Hogan’s whiskey once she returns.


The film’s centrepiece is a long, superbly constructed and sustained sequence in which Hogan is skewered by an arrow from a roving Indian band when he and Sara set out to blow up a troop train. Sara again successfully wields the power of her fake religiosity by warding off the Indians by holding her crucifix up in the hope some might recognise it, and then sets about obeying Hogan’s instructions for getting the arrow out of him. The shaft has pierced him through, and the point is jutting from his back, so the best way to extract the arrow is to bash it right through. Hogan gets drunk to dull the pain as he makes her meticulously prepare the arrow with a groove filled with gunpowder to be lit at the moment she strikes so that the burning powder will cauterize the wound even as it slides through his body. This excruciating piece of frontier doctoring works a treat, but it leaves Hogan too drunk and too crippled to prepare to blow the train. Instead he makes Sara plant dynamite under a trestle bridge (never mind that dynamite wasn’t patented until a year after the end of the Juarista War), necessitating a perilous climb for the woozy lady. Hogan, who can only shoot with his left hand, must try to detonate the explosive with a bullet. He muffs it repeatedly until Sara lets loose in a tirade of furious, salty insults and slaps, whereupon he finally manages to hit the dynamite and wreck the train in spectacular fashion. Their shared achievement in wounding the enemy proves to be partly self-defeating, as the French garrison in Chihuahua is put on the alert, so that the easy victory over a mob of drunkards Sara promised the Juaristas becomes instead an assault on a highly alert stronghold.


There’s a terrifically involved, logical and convincing layering of story. Siegel steps easily between comic and serious notes because they’re both allowed to flow with naturalness from the circumstances. Sara isn’t pretending to be a nun just because it’s funny, but because she’s genuinely afraid for her safety and it’s a practical, useful disguise, albeit one that creates problems as well as solutions. Frankly, Sister Sara makes a lot of contemporary genre filmmaking seem, by comparison, plastic and detached from reality, however much more fire and blood they might toss at the screen. Hogan and Sara eventually rejoin society as they make it to the encampment of a Juarista band led by Colonel Beltrán (Manolo Fábregas), another alpha male held in axial partnership with Hogan by Sara as they venture into town to check over their target and find the soldiers on the defensive, demanding a new plan. Siegel’s dynamic sense of staging turns a throwaway sequence like the Juaristas sneaking into town and ascending to the rooftops overlooking the fort into an epic moment of communal action in the offing.


Hogan travels back to the States to buy more dynamite, giving him time to heal, and when he returns, he is faced with Sara’s actual identity. Boetticher was quite mad at Siegel for making it too obvious that Sara wasn’t what she was supposed to be before the reveal, but it’s still a splendidly funny moment when Sara leads Hogan and the freedom fighters to the “church,” and the madame (Rosa Furman) greets Sara gleefully by grabbing her backside. When Hogan protests that her church is actually a cathouse, she replies, “Oh no, this is no cathouse. This is the best damn whorehouse in town.” Sara rattles off an airy explanation, wraps a red shawl about her head, steals a cigar, and bingo, she’s anything Hogan could ever need and maybe more than he can handle.


When an underground passage that offers a secret way into the fortress proves to be locked from above, the only way for the army to penetrate the fort is for Hogan to pose as a bounty hunter bringing the wanted Sara back for punishment. The fort’s commander, Gen. LeClaire (Alberto Morin), is a gentlemanly creep who pleasantly offers Sara a last indulgence of a snoot full of wine before being shoved before a firing squad still in her habit. Hogan’s quick draw sees the CO and his roomful of brass-buttoned officers blown to kingdom come in a blink, and red-blooded characters can finally get down to the proper business of fighting and fucking. The final battle scene was criticised by some, and it is at odds with the rest of the film to a certain degree, as Siegel visualises the ferocious battle as a murderous whirlwind that plays as Siegel’s riposte-cum-tribute to the climax of his former protégé’s The Wild Bunch. Forty-odd years later, though, it just seems like a damn great action climax—indeed, one of my favourites—in keeping with the determinedly gritty vicissitudes of its time. Hogan finally gets to prove his action chops, tossing dynamite like an arsenal of thunder and letting galloping horses drag him past the French guns so that he can let Beltrán and his renegades into the fort. Flames boil and limbs are severed as Siegel’s camerawork switches from rocketing tracking shots to handheld immersion in the midst of furious hand-to-hand melees.


Hogan reenters the brothel with the fort’s cashbox in a wheelbarrow and bashes his way into Sara’s room to find her in a bathtub: he climbs in fully clothed, explaining “I don’t have time!” when she comments he might at least take off his hat. The film’s last, great visual joke shows Hogan back on horseback and heading home, tetchily waving for his lady to catch up. Sister Sara is just as much his essential pain in the ass as before, dressed in all her finery as a woman of easy virtue, crossing the desert with her rough-hewn beau in dainty defiance of good sense.


1st 06 - 2014 | 4 comments »

Americathon (1979)

The White Elephant Blogathon

Director/Coscreenwriter: Neal Israel


By Roderick Heath

I’m sure you can imagine my pride and excitement in being asked to participate in the White Elephant Blogathon. How I’ve longed to be ennobled by this most cherished of institutions for the online film scholar. For this auspicious event, I was, of course, expecting half-fearfully, half-excitedly, the films I would be assigned to watch, wondering what peculiar depth of cinematic atrocity or weird and mysterious lode of forgotten peculiarity might be assigned to me. Of the little list of films I received, one, Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), is a film I’m already familiar with, and besides Marilyn had already written it up in her inimitable fashion. The first and most interesting-sounding one I was able to obtain from my other choices was the all-but-forgotten 1979 comedy Americathon. Directed by Neal Israel, who had previously made the fairly well-regarded speculative satire about the future of TV, Tunnelvision (1976), Americathon is not a film with a good reputation. In fact, it is considered an absolute abomination. One of my online friends told me it was the first film he ever walked out on—he was 8 years old. But still I could hope that whoever had chosen it for the blogathon wished some attentive and open-minded person could rehabilitate what they felt had been wrongly designated an infamous stinkburger.


There is perhaps no form of bad film more troubling than the bad comedy. The bad comedy resists the usual dialogue of viewer and filmmaker that other bad movies allow, failings that can make seemingly worthless films fascinating, compelling, or just plain hilarious. When someone makes a bad horror film or scifi film, the viewer has the privilege of enjoying the disparity between intent and result—they can laugh at it. But a bad comedy is bad precisely because you cannot laugh at it. This failure inspires instead a sense of personal desperation. As jokes are mistimed and pratfalls land with a thud, bad comedy shames us. Why? Because it’s so closely related to good comedy. We wince with a sense of recognition at how before we’ve laughed at hoary gags, dusty joke set-ups, try-hard comedians desperate to be liked, and clichéd punchlines. We cringe in perceiving how thin the line is between cheeky deflation and juvenile nastiness, familiar mockery and snide impertinence. The experience stokes the worst possible association for us, making us remember those jokes we’ve told that no one laughed at, and worse, made people snort derisively at our lameness. A bad monster movie inspires a sense of fun, of camaraderie with the filmmakers who couldn’t do that much better than you under the circumstances. A bad drama thrills us with the spectacle of seriousness turned camp, the fine art of portraying raw humanity turned into the kabuki of ham glory-seeking. A bad comedy makes you want to hide from humanity.

And yet Americathon gave me some real laughs.

For about 15 minutes.


Americathon was adapted from a stage production written by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman, who had earlier collaborated on the script of Zachariah (1971), a more admired genre mash-up. Americathon has a central comic idea that could have yielded comedic dividends, and fits in quite neatly amongst a mode of screen comedy that was pretty common in the ’70s and early ’80s, a mode that seemed aimed to create the cinematic equivalent of an animated Mort Drucker cartoon, teeming with excess detail in painting vast panoramas of general zaniness. This style required brash and vivid execution, exceptional comic timing, and lashings of satire, cynicism, and a knowing, encompassing attitude to pop culture driven by a freewheeling, carnival-like sense of Americana in fecund decline. This comedy style had roots in disparate influences of ’50s and ’60s hip comedy—MAD magazine, Terry Southern, Lenny Bruce, Gary Trudeau, Richard Lester, student stage revues and improv theatre, Frank Tashlin, Buster Keaton, Luis Buñuel, Woody Allen, Tom Lehrer, Yippie street theatre, Mel Brooks, etc. The great days of this style were certainly not in the past when Americathon was released: Steven Spielberg’s 1941 came out the same year, David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams’ Airplane! and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers a year later. The fact that a lot of these were made by Jewish filmmakers isn’t coincidental. Jewishness was cool in the ’70s, as if all America had suddenly caught up with the Jewish take on things (that’s director Israel there with the sign in the above picture).


The quality that makes a film like Airplane! hallowed and one like Americathon dispatched to ignominy is one of those mysteries of culture that if someone could distil and package it, would make them rich beyond Jack Benny’s wildest dreams. Kicking off with one of the jaunty songs provided for the soundtrack by the Beach Boys, Americathon deploys a vision for America’s near-future from a perspective that acutely reflects the worries and fashions of 1979, as a dystopian state is played for mordant humour. Without petrol to run them, cars have become homes, and hero Eric McMerkin (Peter Riegert) sets off to work surrounded by bicyclists and joggers on highways turned into communal tides—only now does it look like a green-left dream come true.


George Carlin narrates the film, supposedly the voice of Eric when he’s older and looking back on these events: Carlin’s wry delivery is very much the reason why I found the early part of the film amusing. Thus, according to Carlin, Jimmy Carter is quickly lynched for giving one of his infamously uninspiring TV speeches, “along with two or three of his snootier cabinet members,” in contemplating yet another energy crisis, and his successor, David Eisenhower (Robert Beer), abandons his post in favour of cavorting with a girlfriend on the beach. The country runs out of petrol in the mid-1980s and money not long thereafter. By 1998, the U.S. is bankrupt and has maxed out its credit from Native American magnate Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George) to the tune of $400 billion, who is finally calling in the bill.


The new president has one thing in common with Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt—his name. Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) is, as Eric tells us, a graduate of “ECT, Scientology, TM, and Primal Grope Therapy,” a blissed-out New Age dim bulb who’s has moved the seat of the presidency into a rented Californian house now referred to as the West White House. Chet’s campaign promise was, “I’m not a schmuck,” but he’s having trouble keeping it. One of Chet’s cabinet members resigns to protest his awful ideas for revenue-raising, like a raffle to sell off public monuments and national treasures, only for his protest to be met with a smarmy kiss-off from Chet. “Fear is just a boogeyman of your mind,” Chet retorts to warnings of the dire situation, “I believe in taking responsibility.”


Eric, an academic who specialises in understanding TV demographics, is called to the West White House to consult on the raffle, but Eric protests that raffles work badly on TV, comparing it to the effectiveness of telethons. Chet’s bright-eyed girlfriend Lucy Beth (Nancy Morgan) suggests that the government hold exactly that. Chet is, of course, delighted and sets the wheels in motion, giving Eric a cabinet position to run the event he dubs “Americathon.” But Chet’s advisor Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard) tries to sabotage the project at every turn because he’s plotting with ambassadors from the Hebrab Republic, an Arab-Israeli superstate, to take over the foreclosed U.S. Failing that, they have an attack squad ready to wipe out the government leaders.


Americathon’s foresight is extremely patchy, but often notable, accurately conceiving a future China gone raving capitalist, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reconstruction of Vietnam as a resort destination, the emergence of vastly wealthy Native Americans, the further debasement of high office by the telegenic, reality TV, aspects of modern environmentalism, and even the once-unthinkable longevity of ’60s rock bands like the Beach Boys. The future China isn’t just capitalistic—it defeated the Soviet Union “in table tennis and a nuclear war,” and has become a fast-food empire. Its most popular export is the Chang Kai Chef Restaurant chain with its biggest seller, the Mao Tse Tongue on Rye. Sam Birdwater’s repeated crying-poor protests that “I have to eat, too!” in apologetically insisting on loan repayment have a ring that’s become ever more familiar in recent years from plutocrats. Nike’s greatest days were still ahead of it, but it was already well known enough for the film to spin a joke around, for Birdwater’s mighty conglomerate is called “National Indian Knitting Enterprises,” specialising in a raft of fashionable industries like running shoes and tracksuits. Whilst the popularity of sportswear and casual clothes hasn’t quite reached the point that Americathon suggests it would, where everyone wears it all the time (even the Americathon host wears a kind of evening dress tracksuit), this is one of the film’s subtler and more pervasive gags. And there are some other, rather less acute anticipations, like its vision of a great Jewish-Islamic imperial power, and its fascinating, very ’70s myopia when it comes to race and sex—the film’s portrayal of a crass and sexist future is inextricable from its own era’s fully subsumed crassness and sexism. Example: the Hebrab Republic is described as having been founded on the recognition of the Jews and Arabs of their common trait—“the hots for anything blonde with a tush.” The film’s vision of debased future TV culture involves a drag queen father (I think that one was ticked off somewhere around 1987).


Amusingly, Americathon was part-financed by West German investors looking for a tax shelter, which sounds like a plot point from the film, and gives some accidental substance to its theme of the American bodies politic, corporate, and cultural consuming each other to the enrichment of foreigners. One underlying spur for this flight of fancy is a basic, perpetual, peculiarly American anxiety that’s coexisted with the officially optimistic national spirit since the earliest days of the republic—the conviction that it’s all going to fall apart one day, undone by sloth, decadence, and hubris. Here that half-submerged, apocalyptic quality to the American outlook is filtered through common late ’70s concerns, some of them based in quite clear and present realities, like the oil embargoes, energy crises, and the near-bankruptcy of New York, that fed general disillusionment in the wake of Watergate. Post-apocalyptic scifi and futuristic dystopias were common sights on cinema screens in the period; Americathon merely takes the same building blocks and turn them into comedy, in much the same fashion as Dr. Strangelove (1964), to which it pays homage via Eric’s last name, which calls out to Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley. Moreover, the film’s absurdism certainly has likenesses to more recent variations on the same ideas, including Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006) and “The Simpsons,” especially the episode which casts a grown-up Lisa as an assailed President. Americathon then doesn’t lack for a premise with potential.


Nor does it lack for conceits that could readily become black comedy gold, like the performance by a superstar thrown up by the newfound fortune and popularity of Vietnam, Mouling Jackson (Zane Buzby), who specialises in songs crammed with sadistic come-ons to Yankee running dogs, performed in front of a colossal Viet Cong recruiting poster. This sequence exemplifies the film’s apparent aspiration to match Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler” sequence in The Producers (1967) for transcendently provocative bad taste, or a monument to insta-camp as aesthetic value like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). However, even early Brooks had more directorial skill for that sort of thing than Israel, whose TV sketch technique exacerbates the already lingering structural weaknesses apparent in the slipshod and unfinished transposition from the stage. The songs, which I presume are also imported from the stage version, are charmless. One reason the “Springtime for Hitler” or “Time Walk” episodes in their respective films work well is because they’re great tunes, whilst the songs in Americathon are third-rate pastiche. Vanderhoff ensures that the only acts Eric is supposedly allowed to put on stage are terrible—ancient vaudevillians, most of them ventriloquists. So not only are we facing unfunny comedy in these stretches, we’re also dealing with unfunny comedy about unfunny comedy.


Americathon’s narrative is supposed to spin out of control along with television programming as it reaches unforeseen levels of grotesquery once Eric, allowed by Chet to slip Vanderhoff’s leash, starts going for the jugular with ever more outlandish, attention-getting acts, debasing the audience even as it saves their country. But the potency here is frittered away even in the film’s already curtailed running time. Any real telethon contains more moments of lethal smarm, dropped guards, self-congratulation, exposed pathos, performative desperation, and self-satire than this film manages. Nor does it make much sense that such an outrageous and popular foreign act as Mouling is booked when the rest of the bill is supposed to be mind-numbing slop. Whilst Israel is happy enough with the free-roaming, vignette-laden silliness of the early scenes, enjoying regulation ’70s jokes like a bicycle ridden by a quartet of nuns, his capacity to film performance is atrocious, missing all the details provided by the choreographers by constantly having his camera or edits in the wrong place, as if someone has half-heartedly filmed a live stage performance. The film as a whole has a blank, dull, cluttered look, one that exemplifies the mercenary quality of lesser ’70s filmmaking, an aspect that accords well with the air of glorified television much of it has. The cinematographer was Gerald Hirschfeld, who did such a good job shooting Young Frankenstein (1974) that for a moment, Mel Brooks looked like a film aesthete. Here, Hirschfeld doesn’t seem able to assert any kind of discipline on Israel.


Once Eric does start playing for the cheap seats, he stages the destruction of the last working car in America, a spectacle of consumer outrage perpetrated by loony daredevil Roy Budnitz (Meat Loaf), and a boxing match between a mother and a son (May Boss and Jay Leno). But he balks when the chosen host of the telethon, Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman), suggests an onscreen killing, and becomes increasingly detached from the show. Monty himself is a flailing ham who’s sunk from major film stardom to starring in that drag-queen sitcom: Vanderhoff signs off on him because he has a heart ailment and a major drug problem (he has a suitcase full of pills in every shade of the rainbow) and is likely to drop dead before the 30-day event is over. But Monty is determined to revitalise his career and power through, bitchily accosting Eric and molesting anything in a skirt on stage. Korman, so terrific for Brooks in Blazing Saddles (1974), is the arrhythmic palpitation at the heart of this film, struggling with lines that have pretences to hilarity but no actual wit, trying to invest his caricature with an edge of pathetic anti-heroism it cannot sustain. Worse, the film seems to think he has actual pathos. It’s a little like someone decided to play the Emcee of Cabaret (1972) as the empathic spirit of declining Weimar Germany rather than its septic id, or Gig Young’s Emcee from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) as comic foil. Similarly, the film can’t decide if Eric is a growing voice of wisdom and conscience, the wily nerd hero who saves the day with brains, or just another stooge, whilst his romantic subplot—Lucy, spurned by Chet, who falls instantly in lust with Mouling, gravitates instead to Eric—is mere window dressing.


This points to one of the biggest problems with Americathon: it sets up a semblance of traditional plot and character arcs, but fails to utilise them effectively. A major “plot” point like Chet and Mouling being kidnapped by Hebrab agents is resolved via voiceover in the concluding montage, whatever comedic or thematic value it was supposed to convey unfulfilled. Such sloppiness is not necessarily a great crime in comedy, which can thrive on narrative chaos, but in a film as hard-up for coherent focal points and genuinely inspired situations as that one, it really hurts. What few laughs the film wrings out of its later sections comes from throwaway vignettes, like the kid Chris Broder (Geno Andrews) who sets out to skateboard across America to raise funds, accompanied by his strict father (“On the fourteenth day, his father finally allowed Chris to stop for lunch”), and arrives to a heroic welcome on the Americathon stage, only to get a slapping and a shove back off by Monty when Chris announces he’s collected the grand total of $32.12. Other vignettes just seem a bit desperate, like a glimpse of the now U.S.-controlled United Kingdom where Number 10 Downing Street is now “Thatch’s Disco,” and Elvis Costello is the Earl of Manchester. Costello’s brief appearance is utterly random (although snatches of the guitar hook from his “Chelsea” constantly punctuate the film at unexpected moments), as if someone kidnapped him from the airport pretending to be a chauffeur, took him to the film set, and forced him to film a cameo for the sake of giving the film some actual cool. Costello tries to compensate for his limply patched-in status by lip-synching energetically to another of his songs before some apparently entertained tourists.


Whatever interest this film might hold today for most viewers would probably lie in its truly odd assortment of stars, many of whom are billed in TV fashion as making special appearances, like serious veteran thespian Opatashu, cunningly cast nonactor Chief Dan, a reputed Native American activist and tribal leader who had appeared in Little Big Man (1970), future faces like Leno, and stars of the moment like Costello and Meat Loaf, Cybill Shepherd as the gold-painted girl who appeals to the audience in Monty’s opening production, and the ill-fated Dorothy Stratten in a blink-or-miss role as a Playboy bunny. Riegert, on his way to becoming one of the quintessential “oh, him” faces of ’80s and ’90s movies, registers a general blank as Eric, though that’s equally the fault of what he’s given to work with. Ritter, once and future sitcom king, fares much better as the dimwit President, though his character is generally rendered too passive to be anything but a foil for others, like Buzby’s Mouling.


I’m not really sure if Buzby is great or awful playing a pop star who comes across a bit like young Marlon Brando playing a street punk stuffed into the body of a vaguely Asian woman. But she is fun, and certainly brings the biggest and most committed comedic performance by far to the film. She all but wrestles bodily with the celluloid to wring some humour from her one-note role as a lunatic who was voted “Most Likely to Take a Life” in her high school year book, insulting and humiliating the President before eagerly becoming his lover, and karate kicking the Hebrab agents who come to kidnap her. One last gag informs us that Chet and Vanderhoff settled their differences after Mouling left Chet for Warren Beatty, and both moved to Vietnam themselves where they founded a religion around the songs of Donna Summer. Now there’s a religion I could embrace.


So is Americathon as godawful as its reputation? Yes and no. The other tricky thing about humour is that it’s often so subjective. The flatly reductive definition many have of good comedy is, did it make me laugh? Well, I’ve seen other films that made me laugh less: on a laughs-to-running-time ratio, or even moreso on a laughs-to-budget ratio, I’d say, for instance, that several recent films, like Your Highness (2011) or The Lone Ranger (2013), delivered less. But comedy is subject to the same rules as other cinema genres: is it well made, well shot, well acted, vigorous in its use of form? In this regard, Americathon is a weak and shoddy work, a by-product from the end of a period when Hollywood was so desperate for galvanising talents, it took risks on hiring rank amateurs. Either way, the time for such cynicism was over: Reagan was a year away, and film critics were already doing some of his work by purposefully attacking dark and negative films—that sort of thing was so 1976.

31st 01 - 2014 | 7 comments »

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Director: Mike Nichols


By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s hard to think of two people more suited to team up on Carnal Knowledge than its director, Mike Nichols, and Jules Feiffer, who wrote the screenplay. Both men are often savage social critics, though more frequently through sardonic humor than penetrating takedown, and Carnal Knowledge is a dart aimed squarely at the confusions and conceits of the hairy ape that was the bourgeois American male during the 1950s and ’60s. While I admit that this brand of masculinity is on the wane, it is hardly on the endangered species list, with people like Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) keeping hope alive for this offshoot of Neanderthal by arguing in his book that wives should “voluntarily submit” to their husbands, comparing marriage to the military chain of command he experienced during his Vietnam War service.

Ann and Jack 1

Feiffer has expressed his disgust with the military command-control he witnessed as a private: “Nobody did it better and more harmfully than the United States Army, where you saw mindless authority run amok, and proudly run amok.” Nichols spent the first part of his career lampooning the mating rituals and pretensions of the bourgeois intelligentsia with his comedy partner, Elaine May. With Carnal Knowledge, the two men ridicule male immaturity and expose the quiet tragedy of the stereotypes about women their protagonists accept and act upon without question.


Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) are best friends and incoming freshmen at Amherst. The film opens with them speaking in voiceover as the Glenn Miller instrumental version of “Moonlight Serenade” plays softly, pulling us into the nostalgic innocence of an earlier time, that is, until we focus on the conversation itself. Both Jonathan and Sandy are talking about what they want in a woman, with Sandy yearning for understanding and, of course, sex, but it’s not the most important thing, and Jonathan wanting a woman, preferably with big tits, to go all the way with him while admitting he would lose respect for her if she does.


Jonathan has bought into the cocksman role, while Sandy is the proto-emo man. When they attend a mixer, Smith freshman Susan (Candice Bergen) walks past them, drawing their attention. Jonathan “gives” her to Sandy, so sure that if he has first crack at her, he’ll score. Sandy fluffs his first attempt to chat her up, and is only saved in his second try when Susan breaks the ice first. They engage in the kind of pseudo-intellectual b.s. college students can’t seem to resist, testing their intellectual muscles around the sensitive topic of emotional honesty.

J and C

Susan starts seeing Sandy, but balks at his attempts to get sexual. She finally gives him a hand job out of pity, a dubious triumph Sandy shares with his best friend. Jonathan instantly jumps at the chance for a piece of ass and calls Susan up. That she goes out with him shows she’s pretty typical in wanting to appear nice but actually break the rules, and that she’s as attracted to bad boys as most women are. Jonathan takes her virginity outside on the leaf-strewn ground. Nichols films her move abruptly out of the frame, and we think she’s appalled by what happened. Instead, Susan cuddles lovingly with Jonathan, and their affair is off and running. Despite Jonathan’s pleas and declaration of love, Susan refuses to hurt Sandy by telling him about Jonathan. Instead, the film takes a leap in time, and we learn that Susan and Sandy, now a physician, are married with children, and Jonathan is a businessman whose madonna/whore complex has transformed into thinking that all females are ballbusters.


Carnal Knowledge put me in mind of an anthropological study by Margaret Mead, say, Coming of Age in Samoa or Male and Female. Many of the shots are static, framing a scene or a face full on, taking advantage of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno’s lush eye, as though photographing an exotic subculture, but also his clinical distance, both characteristics he displayed to perfection in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963). One rather unnerving scene shows Bergen laughing almost uncontrollably, her aristocratic cool shattered, as Nicholson and Garfunkel speak out of frame on either side of her. Bergen is heartbreaking in showing how trapped she is between these two men, unable to reconcile her physical desires with her intellectual and material needs. The corollary for this scene comes later in the film when Sandy tells Jonathan all the things he and Susan do to try to spice up their sex life, ending sadly with “maybe you’re not supposed to like it with someone you love.”

Ann and Jack

At times, the shooting style is simultaneously elegant and tawdry. For example, when Jonathan and Bobbie (Ann-Margret), the passive sex object he has taken to dinner, have sex for the first time in his apartment, Nichols directs the camera smoothly through Jonathan’s apartment, going from room to room and up hallways until we are in earshot of the couple’s sex noises and ending with a shadowy shot of them in bed just as they both climax. He goes for the money shot he knows audiences want—Ann-Margret naked—but lets us pretend that, like children, we just happened to stumble in on the primal scene.


Much has been said about Ann-Margret’s touching performance in this film, one that turns her happy sex kitten act on its head by revealing the vulnerability of a woman who has bought into the stay-at-home wife/mother role society has determined for her and who uses her physical gifts to snare someone to take care of her. In a cute scene of seduction in which Jonathan tries to guess Bobbie’s age, Feiffer gets at the underlying cruelty—Bobbie is 29, a desperate age for women seeking respectability in family life. The contempt both men and women have for Bobbie is exemplified by Cindy (Cynthia O’Neal), the haute-bitch Sandy hooks up with after his divorce from Susan. Nichols frames the two women side by side as they watch Jonathan and Sandy play tennis, showing the class contrast between the two. Later, Cindy calls Bobbie “that tub of lard” when Sandy and Jonathan cravenly cook up a partner swap, repudiating not only Bobbie’s ’50s brand of femininity, but Jonathan’s attraction to it. In fact, Jonathan is not so different from Bobbie, as women out of his league emotionally use him for sex and then drop him back at his metaphorical corner.

Rita Moreno

Whether you find Carnal Knowledge absorbing or alienating may depend on your age and how well you recognize men like Jonathan and Sandy. Sandy is the more common male these days, interested in being in love and moving, however superficially, with the times. Garfunkel has a certain geeky air that has become chic in 2014, and his searching for himself in traditional and countercultural ways—taking up with a much-younger hippie chick (Carol Kane, in her first big-screen appearance)—certainly continues to resonate. Today, men like Jonathan are hounded individuals—every time one says something predictably outrageous in the public sphere, the petitions and denunciations come flying out of cyberspace. There must have been something prescient in Feiffer and Nichols’ approach to this character, who ultimately ends up impotent unless a gypsy-like prostitute (Rita Morena) performs a magic incantation word for word over his dick.

1971 - Carnal knowledge

The sardonic imp that Nicholson would play in many of his films blooms to its fullest in Carnal Knowledge, the perfect arch of his eyebrows matching his wiseacre speech. He uncorks his patented tantrum with barely controlled intensity; it seems a tired device now, but when I first saw this film in a theatre, it really made an impression. Nichols tries to imbue Jonathan with some pathos early in the film, training the camera on his dejected face as an oblivious Sandy and Susan bustle and chatter in the margins of the screen. Sadly, Jonathan just ends up being really creepy, inserting a picture of his daughter into the slideshow of his love life, “Ballbusters on Parade.”

In some ways, I wanted to feel sympathetic toward Sandy and Jonathan, but Feiffer and Nichols were having none of that. This is a look at the dark soul of masculinity that saves its heart for its women.

27th 10 - 2013 | 8 comments »

The Exorcist (1973)

Director: William Friedkin


By Roderick Heath

Few films have ever scored such a bullseye with the zeitgeist as The Exorcist did in the early 1970s. Whilst its reputation as a classic of the horror genre has only grown stronger in the intervening 40 years, the impact it had in its day seems practically unreproducible now, as it’s hard to imagine a modern horror movie driving as deep into the secret anxieties and wrenching such phobic reactions from such a large audience. Apart from the genre borderline case Psycho (1960), it was the first horror film since Universal Studio’s colossal one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) to provide a genuine blockbuster, and became, along with The Godfather (1972) and Jaws (1975) one of three record-shattering hits adapted from popular novels in the early decade that restored Hollywood’s confidence as arbiter of global entertainment. Notably, all three were comparatively harsh, violent movies revolving around threat to the family. The Exorcist, in spite of a censorship rating that today would hamstring its chances of being a big hit (witness this year’s bloodless World War Z), became that movie everybody saw.


Disliking The Exorcist should be easy for some of the same reasons it was so successful. The film cunningly exploits the post-’60s anxiety over permissiveness, the fear of disintegrating social and familial bonds, the fading role of binding institutions and patriarchal controls, and the uprise of the conservative reaction: indeed it might be argued that it helped foster that reaction, as Moral Majoritarians ranting about demonic influence and satanic sacrifice became a pseudo-political fixture in the next 20 years. Teeming rip-offs and imitations have followed it and indeed still populate theatre screens, diluting the film’s individuality and impact. The Exorcist moreover shattered nearly as many taboos of popular entertainment as young Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) ruptures in the course of her possession. How does a film with a scene in which a teenage girl gouges her own vagina raw with a crucifix and then tries to make her mother lick off the blood, a scene of pathological force much in accord with Jesus Franco’s and John Waters’ no-budget exercises in provocation, become such a giant hit? By being as hypocritical, in a way, as Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics filled with the stark pleasures of the flesh and the profane.


The Exorcist gets off on the spectacle of the transgressive, the nascent punk spirit of the demon’s mockeries of all settled structures, whilst contriving to box them in and redefine them as forbidden, in turning the liberationist urges of the previous decade into a leering caricature of adolescent anarchic impulse. And yet The Exorcist resists being belittled by such objections. William Peter Blatty’s tawdry but surprisingly skilful novel provided a solid basis. Blatty was himself a successful screenwriter and literary entrepreneur who had written several movies, most notably A Shot in the Dark (1964), and shepherded the film version as screenwriter and producer with proprietorial attitude. The director, however, was William Friedkin, making a follow-up to his Oscar-winning hit The French Connection (1971), handling a production laced with surprising prestige for such lurid material. Friedkin, both still a flashy wunderkind but also already an experienced professional, was at the height of success and artistry with his gift for melding slick filmmaking with various New Wave and Neo-Realist principles, and he tackled Blatty’s material with an individual purpose.


The opening sequence, filmed in the ruins of Hatra in Iraq, introduces the title protagonist, Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow), and is effective in the way it capitalises on refinements of sound technique as visual flourishes in a sequence that’s purposefully enigmatic, but filled with charged intimations of arcane dread and mysterious signs. Merrin, engaged in an archaeological dig, is called with peculiar urgency to come and take a look at some relics that have been uncovered, including a medallion that seems out of place, and Merrin himself finds a dirt-crusted idol that seems to stir some latent fear in the aging minister. Merrin’s wanderings in the nearby town are filled with off-hand yet portentous omens like a one-eyed blacksmith, a clock that stops by itself, and an old woman in a coach who nearly barrels down the priest, all shot by Friedkin in a fashion that combines documentary matter-of-factness and deceptive stylisation. The rhythmic pulse of workers digging on the ruins segues into the clamour of blacksmiths and the thunder of horses’ hooves, as Merrin seems to follow signs like breadcrumbs until he encounters a statue of the Mesopotamian wind demon Pazuzu, standing watch over the primal, blasted landscape. The very air vibrates with spiritual threat as armed guards watch and a pair of dogs start madly fight, droning dissonance and savage tussling on sound. The way Friedkin builds this sequence, with what’s really going on left unstated but tangibly momentous, manages to promise the audience a real ride is commencing even though virtually nothing happens, essayed with care fitting for the tradition of genre masters like Jacques Tourneur, Terence Fisher, and Mario Bava.


Friedkin shifts scene through a series of dissolves that bind an image of confrontation, between Merrin and the demon statue, and the setting sun, and disparate landscapes, that of the Iraq desert and the American city of Georgetown, rendered in reverse zooms (out and then in) to confirm the as-yet mysterious relationship of the two places and events. As opposed to the blinding clarity and warm tones of the desert, Georgetown is a smear of cold blues and autumnal hues. The university town was an inspired choice of location, a place where old brownstones and modern architecture clash in the street. Blatty’s choice to set his tale partly in the film world gives the film a flavour of insider satire at points, although he and Friedkin also consciously wring the extra dimension it offers to the background of Chris and Regan MacNeil: Regan is caught at one point reading a gossip magazine with their photo, clandestinely shot, on the cover, as if to hint the cult of celebrity is another insidious force in their lives, and giving aspects of what follows the feeling of a particularly twisted type of celebrity-offspring cautionary tale. The essence of The Exorcist, in portraying a young girl from a modern, irreligious, liberal, broken home possessed by an opportunistic devil, is on its crudest level bigoted nonsense. And yet the writing and directing avoid shallow reductions, and there’s coherence to the work on both a dramatic and human level that both contradicts and powers the film’s core themes.


One contradiction is the emphasis on maternal love that refuses to accept faltering authorities’ bleating failures, and a strong mutual reliance between Chris and her secretary Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn), who along with old housekeepers Karl (Rudolf Schündler) and Willi (Gina Petrushka) provide a kind of makeshift family, exacerbating the film’s surprisingly close relationship to the “Women’s Picture” genre, one aspect that confirms the canny operator and film buff as well as screenwriter Blatty was. It’s also a peculiar reminder that the ’70s cinema that has become popularly hallowed is very much a masculine realm. There’s no traditional love story in The Exorcist, a telling elision. The major male characters are necessarily sexless. It’s also in part a tale of teenage alienation and fallout of rupturing family securities. The MacNeil household is established early on as a broken one: Regan’s celebrity mag happens to dish the gossip on why her father left. An almost Bergman-esque shot early in the film sees Friedkin’s camera peering through an open doorway as Chris gets more and more frantically angry trying to contact her ex-husband to get him to speak to his daughter on her birthday, and then dollying back to reveal that Regan is listening. A pervasive note of hushed melancholy and both physical and moral exhaustion flows through most of The Exorcist, which gives coherence to feeling that hero Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and victim Regan have become spiritual garbage cans for a swiftly altering world’s toxic emotional waste and confusion.


Notably, the first manifestation of possession that grips Regan comes when she prods her mother with nascent awareness, in suggesting that Chris can bring the director of the movie she’s been filming, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), to her birthday celebrations, discomforting Chris even as she laughingly dismisses the notion. Oh, how many parents would like to be able to put such signs of emerging independence and viewpoint in their cute and cuddly children down to demonic influence? The notion that Regan’s behaviour is a heightened version of a jaundiced idea of then-modern youth remains, with the film revelling in transgressive behaviour: swearing at authority figures, pissing on the carpet, grabbing a psychiatrist by the balls, using a crucifix as a sex toy, and vomiting bile on a priest when he tries to get too clever, all plied like some relentlessly puerile, satirical work of performance art. Friedkin exacerbates this tone by making each stage of Regan’s transformation into a blackout gag.


The notion, suggested in Regan’s probing Chris about her relationship with Burke, that the possessing demon whispers like the serpent of Eden in Regan’s ear, prodding her to act on dark impulses and observations about her world, is not taken anywhere, disappointingly; rather the demon’s complete separation from Regan is rammed home with force, but less complication. The film’s most malicious coup is the way it makes relentless fun of the modern world’s new priests, medical practitioners, to score a victory for the older brand. The Exorcist inverts familiar assumptions by making the forces of rationalism into the cold, foolish, scarcely capable bumblers who have to finally bite the bullet and hand things over to the “witch doctors.” A parade of know-it-alls, from Chris’s first consultant, Dr. Klein (Barton Heyman), onwards try to mollify the situation with drugs and tests to diagnose the problem. The tests become, under Friedkin’s eye, essentially modern versions of witch trials, with the body of a small girl who has shown aggression and disobedience, tethered, jabbed, probed, scanned, irradiated, and bled with a gruelling exactitude that would make Witchfinder General’s (1968) Matthew Hopkins smile in recognition.


This great joke is acute to a degree and also disingenuous on several levels, but certainly key to The Exorcist’s atypical, Janus-faced power and popularity. Friedkin’s film both exploits the popular mindset of the early ’70s with its distrust of institutions and experts, a New Age-type dislike of the over-powerful ministers of official truth and well-being, whilst also catering to an anxiety over rejecting other institutions and their teachings. The call of a deeper, darker, more primal truth is the constant keynote of the story, albeit framed safely by the religious structure, with the pre-Christian horror of Pazuzu representing the threat of devolution to a world that abandons Judeo-Christian values. Regan, initially glimpsed as an apple-cheeked cutey pie, devolves into a scarred, pale, suppurating mess tied to her bed and yet waiting in malign pleasure to join battle with the forces of good. It soon becomes plain that Pazuzu wants a return bout with Merrin, who famously conducted an exorcism that lasted a month and nearly killed him whilst working as a missionary in Africa. The demon also hopes to claim the soul of Karras, a Jesuit priest who’s also a psychiatrist and rationalist who is failing to cope with the schism.


Karras seems to present a protagonist in the Van Helsing tradition of heroes who have both secular and spiritual skill. And yet Karras’ susceptibility is the ticking time bomb, providing a mirror to Merrin, who’s confident in his faith but aware that his body is failing. Karras is further dogged by his mother’s (Vasiliki Maliaros) decline and death, contorted by guilt and frustration at his dedication to his calling, rather than pursing his potential as a boxer or secular headshrinker. Tellingly, Friedkin emphasises Karras’ frustration as a an intelligent man with poor, plebeian roots who takes out his rage on a punching bag and feels oppressed by his inability to come to grips with evil, calling to mind Popeye Doyle and other Friedkin heroes. Amusingly, Karras’s neuroses reveal Blatty’s pleasure in cherry-picking marketable story elements. It’s even acknowledged, as the film introduces interested detective Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), a movie nut who tries to charm the priest by comparing him to John Garfield in Body and Soul (1947) and then diss him by amending this to Sal Mineo, who, in The Gene Krupa Story (1959), went through similar angst as guilty son to immigrant mama. Kinderman is essentially superfluous to The Exorcist in terms of story progression, except that he offers a Columbo-esque comic relief in his apparently digressive jokes and film buff quirks – he begs Chris for her autograph moments after suggesting a man was murdered in her daughter’s bedroom – and helps keep the film rooted in the real world where too many genre smiths would have been content to let the drama play out in a conveniently law-free zone.


Karras’ initial scepticism over the possession is soon quelled by the demon’s blackly humorous mockeries, including the famous, rather hilarious pea soup regurgitation, and finally by the film’s most genuinely effective, yet one of its more subtle, horror fillips. Sharon fetches Karras away from his neurotically fascinated studies of Regan’s ravings in backward-English to show the mangled girl’s belly, which displays the words “Help Me” written in her own hand from the inside of her own body, as if trapped deep within, flesh turned into a blackboard of pain. Whereas a lot of the other special-effects moments in the film now look pretty ropy, even tacky, this one retains power, as does the first time Regan’s head seems to turn far beyond human capacity, to deliver, in Burke’s voice, a cruel missive to a beaten and despairing Chris. Blatty’s script was certainly strong, but much of The Exorcist’s ultimate success was due to Friedkin’s skill as a filmmaker, in spite of the work’s many moments of excessive, showy literalness. Just as The French Connection adopted a docudrama approach and cast people really involved with the case it described, Friedkin builds in The Exorcist, layer by layer, an intimately depicted, finely detailed context for the drama, a pseudo-realistic approach mixed with traditional genre style elements. Friedkin went back to Blatty’s original inspiration, the 1949 exorcism of Roland Doe, to try to wring out every detail and feed it into the overall texture, to give the unlikely tale a feeling of veracity.


A hallmark of his great ’70s run of films was Friedkin’s feeling for environment as dramatic element, his capacity to both exploit the shape location imposes on a film and also manipulate it to his ends. Karras’ trip to see his mother in the dilapidated neighbourhood she still clings to kicks off with a shot down the length of a street where skyscrapers soar in the background, but the blight that is the old immigrant ghetto cuts like a black scar in the cityscape, an almost Manichaean contrast that expresses the film’s repeated creed that Earth already has heavens and hells on its face. The evocation of crowded student bars and dorm rooms, the crowd of onlookers watching with delight the troubled film shoot, the swanky party Chris throws, and the wryly businesslike, post-Second Vatican Council attitudes of the religious characters all help imbue a sense of a larger, busy, bustling universe around the core drama. The eventual reduction of the drama to a few specific people engaged in microcosmic struggle packs greater punch for this, too, as every other alternative and respite is stripped away.


Friedkin often breaks scenes, particularly climactic ones, off at unexpected moments that give the narrative a jerky, yet compulsive, almost concussive tempo. Regan’s assault on the psychiatrist breaks off with her maddened scream still echoing in a jump-cut to a seemingly benign, autumnal landscape as Karras takes his morning jog. Concerted quiet and sudden, infernal action alternate as the story gains pace, at least until the thunderous finale, and even that is broken up and filled with delays. Stunned silences, reverent hushes, dazed introversion grip the characters. Each time Regan’s bedroom is approached, a new, ever-heightening act of atrocity occurs, setting the scene for the finale in which all laws of nature are perverted, and yet end with clamour resolving back into quiet.


Friedkin was never, however, a proper realist. Just as he turned New York with The French Connection and Cruising (1980) and the jungle of Sorcerer (1977) into stygian stages, and plugged into the overheated theatricality of The Boys in the Band (1970), The Exorcist veers close to the genre’s traditions of stylised Expressionism. This is obvious particularly, of course, in the shot that provided the movie poster image, a world of chiaroscuro shadows and vividly contrasted light that emphasises the infernal realm the characters shift into, and Karras’ dream sequence, with its desaturated colour, discursive sound, and near-subliminal glimpses of the demon’s face. But it’s just as marked in a less obvious scene like the one in which Karras visits his mother, injured and senile, in a public hospital ward where dazed, drugged, and frantic remnants of human beings are kept, like Bedlam (1946) restaged in Bellevue, where Karras’ mother can only make her borderline camp appeal, “Why you do this to me, Dimmy?”


Another uncommon element of The Exorcist, especially considering how sensational elements of it are, is how few of the narrative’s most consequential acts are depicted. In comparison to the body count porn the horror movie was soon to become, only one death is directly attributable to the demon’s actions, that of Burke. Regan’s initial games with the Ouija board that presumably attract Pazuzu are not shown, only a kind of comic coda. Mrs. Karras, Burke, and Merrin all die off screen. Often, the main characters, and the audience with them, are reduced to confused onlookers, glimpsing moments of grotesquery and unnatural occurrence, but what exactly is seen is kept on the edges of the subliminal, like that first head spin, and the flash-cuts of Pazuzu’s leering, demonic face. Anxiety over the film’s shock value forced Friedkin to curb his original intent to use subliminal images more. In spite of the barrage of effects and the finale’s eventual embrace of the blatant, neither the sense of ambiguity in unknowable aspects of the tale nor the sense of potent spiritual and corporeal threat are ever entirely discharged. The original closing shot, of Karras’ fellow priest and friend, the jovial, larcenous, show-tune-loving Father Dyer (Rev. William O’Malley), standing above the stairs contemplating all things in heaven and hell, leaves off with a vertiginous sense of mystical questioning and urgency even in closing. Indeed Blatty, who wanted “the point” that good won made more obvious, pushed for this shot to be changed in the clumsy 2000 recut.


The quality of the cast is another enormously important strength, for they sell this folderol to us with sublime conviction. Miller, a stage actor and playwright who had never been in a film before, and Burstyn, scarcely a household name, hold up the film with their detailed, physically committed performances. Committed is the right word, as Friedkin puts his cast through the wringer in a fashion bordering on harsh. The film’s high count of Oscar nominations, including for Burstyn, Miller, and Blair, signals how large the cast’s role was in breaking down prejudices against the genre. Burstyn is particularly excellent in the scene in which she fakes her way through an interview with Kinderman even as the realisation that her daughter killed Burke takes root in her mind. The great Irish actor MacGowran gave a peach of a comedic performance despite playing an abusive drunk: sadly it was his last role. Von Sydow gained perhaps his most iconic role after Antonius Block, albeit a problematic one for the Swedish actor, as Dick Smith’s makeup to make him appear old and frail was so successful the 40-something never quite shook off the image. His casting was clever, however, insofar as after The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1966), Von Sydow was largely associated with theological matters, though most his characters for Ingmar Bergman had been closer to Karras.


Ultimately what makes The Exorcist work is the insistence that it’s a genuine, dramatic human story with a purposeful narrative progression. The build-up to the finale is, in its way, as well-arranged and inexorable as the movement of Star Wars (1977) towards the Death Star assault, and like that film, it keeps the story in rigorous contention until a breathlessly climactic rupture lays the narrative waste. As risible as moments of the finale become, like Regan’s 360° head-spin and the two priests bellowing “The power of Christ compels you!”, the sequence retains power in the relentlessness of the audio-visual assault and the spectacle of the two men, who seem almost powerless with only the invisible and waning strength of faith they wield, trying to contend with a force that bends nature to its will. The tension about whether Merrin still can successfully intervene, whether Karras can withstand the demon’s assaults on his psyche, and whether Regan can possibly survive the ordeal all screws relentlessly to a breaking point, as Merrin drops dead, the demon laughs in triumph, and Karras is reduced to wrestling quite literally with the devil whilst also, incidentally, punching a small girl. The sting of the tale is that the demon gets what it wants, but so does Karras, a true proof of faith and redemption for himself. He resists the urge of the demon to consummate his possession by killing Regan, and instead hurls himself to redemptive death. All unfolds in a blindingly brief, yet indelible whirl of images, and concludes with the brilliantly staged vision of Karras’ death-plunge down the fateful stairs.


Inevitably for such a popular film, The Exorcist produced sequels, but the series has always been perceived as particularly benighted in that regard, not entirely fairly. John Boorman’s severely uneven Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) took Regan and the underpinning ideas to some fascinating new places, filled with lush images and perverse inspiration whilst awkwardly incorporating some of the original’s blood and thunder. Blatty himself tried to make a sequel with more fidelity, The Exorcist III (1990), based on his follow-up novel, Legion, revolving around Kinderman and Dyer and the possessed body of Karras. Blatty’s moody direction and the cast were remarkably strong, but a studio-mandated reshoot of the finale almost completely sabotages an otherwise impressive piece of work: similarly ill-fated was Paul Schrader’s attempt to do a prequel, which was deemed too heady and revised by Renny Harlin, with largely awful results. None of this dimmed the original’s status as a rare beast: a genuinely satisfying mainstream horror film.

30th 08 - 2013 | 3 comments »

Enter the Dragon (1973)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Robert Clouse


By Roderick Heath

Enter the Dragon provokes one of those questions that can never be answered: if tragedy had not intervened to claim Bruce Lee’s life at just 32 years of age, what kind of career might he have forged? Lee died during the post-production of Enter the Dragon, seemingly on the cusp of enormous stardom. His image and mythology still reverberate like those of James Dean, another movie star to die young with a small body of work just sufficient to achieve icon status. The film and this question came inevitably back to mind after the death of Lee’s Enter the Dragon co-star Jim Kelly a few weeks ago. Kelly, a martial arts champion and the first black film star with such a background, displayed charisma and cool in Enter the Dragon and earned himself a decade-long movie career, albeit in mostly forgettable vehicles. Whether Lee himself could have become a true global film star, and stayed one through the ’70s and into the ’80s, is a fascinating enigma.


Lee is perhaps the most famous Asian movie actor for international audiences. The son of a Hong Kong opera star, Lee moved to the United States in his teens, where he studied at university and became an actor and martial arts teacher. He evolved into a fascinatingly multifaceted figure, with interests in philosophy and poetry as well as the more physical disciplines that gained him fame. He shattered stereotypes of Asian men in the popular mindset of the West even as he inadvertently created another.


Enter the Dragon served the function for which it was intended—an icon-forging showcase for Lee’s skills and screen presence. In the process, it became a classic of the movie-going underworld, a genuine, top-shelf cult film—the kind of movie that had its sold-out screenings in fleapit cinemas in shady city districts, and a reason home video was invented, its VHS box swiftly becoming tattered by innumerable rentals. It’s the most successful movie of its type ever made, parlaying a budget of $850,000 into an eventual gross of more than $200 million. I recall when I was a young teen, going to a friend’s house, where his father was watching it on tape recorded off television and pointing out to me all the bits that had been censored, recalling with loving zest the sounds of cracking bone that were supposed to accompany certain moments. It’s still hard to believe that the seemingly robust man on screen would be dead within a few months of shooting so many amazing feats. Lee, like Fred Astaire, had a sense of theatre to his physical craft that contributed to his talent; he acted like the world’s most fearsome fighter, and so he was. His incredible speed and athletic ability were quite genuine, and the camera loved it. The fact that Lee was a canny actor helped. His affectation of taciturn confidence bends and gives way only at appropriate times but leaves you in little doubt he was more than just another good athlete who could look tough and attractive on screen.


Enter the Dragon represented an attempt, both commercially and aesthetically, to create a pan-Pacific film. Warner Bros. coproduced it with the Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest studio, and American director Robert Clouse handled the mostly Chinese crew. The film fused aesthetics laid out by the films of King Hu and other wu xia experts in the late ’60s with a flashy plot and tone reminiscent of many a sub-James Bond franchise. Indeed, Enter the Dragon bears far more resemblance to Ian Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice than the film of it did. Like the Steve Reeves Hercules films 15 years earlier, Enter the Dragon accompanied the TV show Kung Fu in helping to kick off a craze for another film culture’s product in the United States, but this time, the gulf breached was broader. Suddenly, cinema and TV screens were filled with the sham-exotic delight of crudely dubbed Shaolin monks and warriors for peace and freedom in the time of the Manchus, worlds far outside the familiar points of reference for Eurocentric cultures. Lee’s prowess became, by proxy, heroic symbol, exacerbated in Enter the Dragon by Kelly’s presence and characterisation, confirming the close link of the growing popularity of the kung fu flick to the Blaxploitation genre’s celebration of personally empowered non-Caucasians—or to put it more concisely, brothers who kick ass.


Lee’s character, named Lee as if to further the conflation of the hero with the actor, is seen at the outset as a Shaolin disciple, battling another disciple (Sammo Hung), receiving the advice of a sage abbot (Roy Chiao), and becoming a teacher of younger would-be warriors. He’s quickly recruited by British spy boss Braithwaite (one-time-only actor Geoffrey Weeks) to infiltrate the island controlled by Han (Shih Kien), who, Lee learns from the abbot, was himself once a Shaolin disciple but who chose to use his gifts to gain wealth and power through evil. Han now controls a small army of martial arts adherents, and holds an occasional martial arts tournament that entices men seeking fortune and glory to compete. Lee soon learns that he has another, even more immediate reason to take on Han: several of his henchmen, including the senior thug Oharra (Robert Wall), attacked Lee’s sister Su Lin (Angela Mao) and caused her to commit suicide rather than be gang-raped. Lee signs up for the tournament. Clouse offers a neat formal device here as the three main protagonists, Lee, Williams (Kelly), and Roper (John Saxon) join the party embarking by junk for the island, their particular motives for venturing into this viper’s nest revealed in flashbacks as they’re ferried through the floating world of Hong Kong’s harbour. Williams and Roper are Vietnam veterans who fought together: where Roper has skipped from the U.S. ahead of mob loan sharks, Williams has beaten up a couple of racist cops.


Enter the Dragon’s style is quintessentially early ’70s, from Lalo Schifrin’s throbbing, propulsive jazz-funk score similar to his superlative work on Dirty Harry (1971), to Gilbert Hubbs’ zoom-patched cinematography. The New Wave-lite visual flourishes, like those zooms and the expositional flashbacks, help synthesise, on a visual level, the same mood of syncopated flashiness as the music, and this finds perfect accord with the film’s contemporaneous themes and fetishes. Director Clouse had previously made a well-received adaptation of a John D. MacDonald novel, Darker than Amber (1970), which had impressed Lee and co-producer Fred Weintraub. They took visual inspiration from comic books, particularly the popular Terry and the Pirates with its pseudo-oriental colouring to create the film’s specific ambience, which envisions the subsistence of a kind of Chinese warlord-chic into the second half of the 20th century. Williams, the self-empowered black hero, cuts a striking figure on the streets of Hong Kong, picked out on the prowl with energetic zooms in the same manner that John Shaft was in Gordon Parks’ 1971 trendsetter Shaft, evoking a kind of worldly man at once streetwise and fit for his environment but also without a natural harbour, giving potency to his pithy reckoning: “Ghettoes are the same the world over. They stink.”


Whilst both Roper and Williams were planning to attend the tournament either way, both are on the run from themselves. Williams’ conscientiousness balances the far glibber Roper, a compulsive gambler who tries to live the playboy lifestyle but finds the bill’s always bigger than his resources and is shocked to be confronted with evil of a kind he cannot make peace with. Roper’s the sort of character Burt Lancaster might have played 10 years earlier—a life-loving, appetite-indulging trickster with real skill to back up his braggart zest. The semblance to Lancaster’s characters in films like The Professionals (1966) is particularly keen when Roper claps eyes on Han’s head courtesan Tania (Ahna Capri) and murmurs, “A woman like that could teach you a lot about yourself.”


Clouse’s use of the Hong Kong location is attentive and flavourful, zeroing in on structures that mark the peculiar texture of the city—ultramodern and virtual shanty town, particularly in the harbour’s floating ghetto, coexisting with a peculiar tension that defines the storyline with its many twinning opposites. Michael Allin’s script doubles up motivation for Lee’s vengeance, in haphazard manner, whilst the dramatic development is generally only functional. But the flashback sequence to Su Lin’s death is great stuff, as Mao gives a terrific display of her own kung fu prowess, decimating henchmen left and right, as fate presses in. Su Lin is chased into the recesses of the waterfront until she’s trapped in a warehouse, surrounded by Han’s men as they bash their way in through doors and windows, and the sequence screws inwards towards its climactic point-of-view shot of Su Lin clutching a hunk of broken glass with Oharra glaring down at her, death or dishonour reduced to a singularly powerful picture that resolves with the plunge of the deadly edge of glass towards the camera.


Oharra and Bolo (Bolo Yeung) are Han’s main henchmen, enforcing tyrannical discipline on their adherents, many of whom have been harvested from a ruthlessly whittled assortment of social rejects and the desperate of Hong Kong. Bolo, in particular, represents the cruel side of Han’s regime, snapping the spines of lesser henchmen who prove inadequate. Han offers his competitors a kind of Playboy-spread macho fantasy, where readiness to engage in primal struggle is countered by a boyish reward of plenty. But Han’s Island becomes a variation on the place in Pinocchio (1940) where the children are indulged with fantastic plenty until they’re turned into donkeys for labour. Han greets his guests with a buffet of easy living and sex, which proves to be a seductive entrée to a process of elimination, weeding out weaklings and dissenters and absorbing talents into his criminal organisation of heroin dealing and forced prostitution.


Lee’s inevitable battle of retribution with Oharra comes, surprisingly in terms of the film’s structure, half-way through Enter the Dragon, as he comes up against the colossal brute in the course of the tournament and sees the Shaolin master easily and steadily clobbering the heavy. (Wall was another martial arts champion at the time and a pal of Lee’s: their ethos was one of full commitment to the fighting on screen, and a lot of filmed clobbering is undoubtedly and wince-inducingly real, though Lee was occasionally replaced by stuntman Yuen Wah for the more gymnastic shots.) Oharra, infuriated, tries to attack Lee from behind with broken bottles, but he’s still beaten, and Lee jumps on him and breaks his back, cueing the film’s most remarkable shot, a slow-motion close-up of Lee’s face, contorting with warrior rage and grief. This tremendous shot confirms Lee really was an actor, as his façade of stoic intensity melts for a moment, and becomes a fulcrum of the action genre: the immediate moral and psychic impact of killing is apparent on a hero’s face with specificity redolent of the films of Anthony Mann. The audience is aware that Lee, as both a Shaolin adherent and son of pacifists, is painfully violating many codes that are important to him, but won’t let them stand in the way of justice. Enter the Dragon is not built, like many classic Asian martial arts cinema (e.g., Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata [1943], The One-Armed Swordsman [1968], The 36th Chamber of Shaolin [1978], or Clan of the White Lotus [1980]) around the acquiring of gifts in confluence with spiritual and conscientious growth; rather the hero is utilising his gifts for righteousness having long since learned where his sense of that lies, but it’s still a burden for him to wage such intimate war.


Nonetheless, Lee doesn’t seem too beset by soul-searching otherwise, preferring to give the audience the kind of unabashed good guy that fell out of fashion in Hollywood in the early ’70s. Lee is fun to watch even when he’s not hitting people, which, considering that he’s playing such a clean-cut character, is doubly admirable. There’s wit in Lee’s performance, in his sarcastic eye rolls when listening to Roper’s jive, or his patiently bored expression as he waits for the cobra he’s foisted on a couple of Han’s guards. Most importantly, Lee’s sense of gestural effect, the quality that made him indelible to so many viewers, is easily apparent and unmistakeable: his high, loud screeches before leaping into battle, his habit of widening his eyes and giving a savagely gleeful, tigerlike loll of his jaw after he’s bested an opponent.


Lee infiltrates Han’s underground operation because he needs to use the only radio on the island, and discovers the depravities within, including women going mad from being pumped full of drugs to make them pliable slaves. When his presence is detected, he rips his way through a small army of henchmen, one of whom is 19-year-old Jackie Chan, in a whirlwind of physical dexterity and badass moves, including kicking two men in the face in one leap. Not the least of Enter the Dragon’s gifts to film posterity was in providing early proving grounds for the talents of Yeung, Hung, and Chan. One clever touch that allows the film to play out as an exercise in pure martial artistry is the fact that Han has banned guns on his island—it’s implied that he lost his hand thanks to one—completely freeing the drama from that usual bugbear of the modern-day martial-arts flick, “Why don’t they just shoot him?”


Much of Enter the Dragon’s punch is thanks to Clouse’s sense of slick, illustrative style, quoting liberally from various Western film masters as well as mimicking the Hong Kong industry’s templates. Much like Don Sharp’s terrific Fu Manchu films of the mid-’60s, Clouse creates a conversant mix of retro style and sharp modernity in turning pulp-fiction Orientalist tropes into compelling contemporary action fare, with the telling difference that now an Asian could also be the hero and kick Fu Manchu in the face. As with the Bond films, Fritz Lang’s early serials and expressionist thrillers cast a long shadow here. Han has a Rotwang-esque gloved hand that hides the fake he wears, the bones of his real hand mounted in his private sanctuary (“A souvenir!” is how he describes it to Roper). Of course, the fake hand comes off and is replaced by claws and blades in the climactic scenes, a touch that perfectly channels both the traditions of wu xia and the Lang-Bond influence. Clouse belongs in a category with some other American filmmakers to emerge from the matrix of late ’60s industry upheavals, like Tom Gries, Richard C. Sarafian, Hal Needham, and Ted Post, who are always left out of accounts of the decade’s official auteurist sagas, but who made a mark reconfiguring populist filmmaking with an influx of lightly contoured post-New Wave effects and successfully blending the slick, playful expectations of genre cinema with a patina of pseudo-realism. For Clouse, Enter the Dragon proved a problematic success, as he was pigeonholed as a martial arts filmmaker, handling the likes of the infamous Gymkata (1985).


Lee’s brief oeuvre, which had also included The Big Boss, about a kung fu hero who becomes a unionist warrior, and Lee’s self-directed Way of the Dragon (1973), where he was defending immigrants in Rome from the mob, concentrated on the ideal of accomplished physical champion of the weak, a compulsory aspect of the genre, of course, but also with a level of discomfort and introspection inherent in contemplating a globalising world where exploitation was nascent. Clouse and Allin bypass that anxiety for the most part, aiming rather, in spite of the background notes of racial angst and Vietnam fallout, for a kind of pan-cultural atmosphere. If I’d pick a major weakness of the film, it’s that it could have fleshed out the roles of Capri and Betty Chung, who plays Mei Ling, an undercover agent who has infiltrated Han’s operation. Mei Ling is largely superfluous, used only to set up action scenes. Tania’s peculiar status as Han’s right-hand woman, who nonetheless succumbs quite easily to Roper’s charms, is interesting, but left sadly underdeveloped, particularly in relation to the bittersweet climax. Lee, like a lot of action stars who would follow him, seemed sadly wary of romance on screen, preferring to project a monkish persona in that regard.


The main characters are well-delineated and enjoyable, however, with Roper and Williams well-used as worldly foils to the fixated brilliance of Lee, in trying to scam Han’s tournament. When Han tries to impress Williams into his operation, the radical resists, of course, prompting Han to murder him. He then tries the same offer with Roper, whose affectation of glib acquiescence to business is shattered finally when he’s confronted with Williams’ mangled, bloody body; in an act of moral decision, he refuses to fight Lee in the ring. Interestingly, only Saxon’s clout as a marketable name resulted in the plot developing this way, as Williams and Roper’s functions were swapped. What the film lost in potential radical clout by having Williams and Lee team up, it gained in entertainment value: Saxon is fun as Roper, with a swaggering, smarmy charm and some surprisingly deft martial arts moves, and his move from comic relief to full-on hero is neatly handled. Roper is forced to battle Bolo after refusing to fight Lee, and bests the hulking henchman at last with a kick in the balls, whereupon all hell breaks loose as the battle lines are drawn between the visitors and prisoners against Han’s army.


The climactic battle between Lee and Han is a great set-piece, and indeed any showing of Enter the Dragon on TV can arrest me in anticipation of it. Khan, who was cast in spite of his poor English precisely because he could offer Lee a strong foe, slashes our hero repeatedly with his razor-fingered fake hand, leading to one of Lee’s most amusingly tough-guy gestures: licking his own blood from his fingers after touching a wound, before clobbering Han in the face with a flying leap and kick, moves that were Lee signatures.


Han finally takes refuge in his mirror-lined bathroom, where reflection upon reflection mangles all sense of space and sense. This gives Clouse a chance to work a variation on the climax of Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1946). As in Welles’ films, this hall of mirrors presents an electrifying visual metaphor for the hero’s destruction of duplicitous images, as Lee recalls the advice of his mentor to smash the illusions his adversary presents and begins breaking the mirrors. Clouse’s visual control in this sequence is genuinely impressive, extracting tremendous visual jazz and excitement from a simple device, with the inevitable pay-off of Han finishing up skewered on one of his own weapons. The final shots of Enter the Dragon find a bloodied and frayed Roper scanning a battlefield of fallen warriors, with Tania amongst them, but still offering a thumbs-up of comradeship to Lee. There’s a rich sense of both the pleasure and cost of victory over evil here, an avoidance of heroic bombast, and a sense of humanity that enriches Enter the Dragon, in spite of its sketchy story, to a point far beyond the usual mercenary reflexes of action films, and marks it as something special.

18th 07 - 2013 | 8 comments »

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

Director: Herbert Ross


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Is comedy dead as an American film genre? Some people might think I’m being facetious, but for me, 2000’s Zoolander was my high watermark for modern comedies, and even that film was showing the signs that I believe have proven near fatal to American comedies. In general, the kind of wit that is based in human experience and cultural literacy and not in unexpected outrageousness, that is, OMG comedy that makes one feel uneasy rather than carefree, is a highly endangered species. Sadly, too, the wonderful comedians who were in vaudeville or were mentored by vaudevillians are dead or retired. Whenever I see a film that taps into the rich tradition of vaudeville entertainment, it is a sad reminder of a much richer world of entertainment that will never come again.


The Sunshine Boys is both a paean to the vaudeville era and a revival of the humor that entertained generations of Americans during the 20th century. Neil Simon, the author of the play on which the film is based, was born in 1927, near the end of the vaudeville era, when the actors and dancers, singers and specialty performers who trod the boards in vaudeville houses across the country were either retiring or trying to transition into motion pictures and radio. Despite the decline of vaudeville on the stage, movies were still liberally seasoned with the stories and acts of the era. For example, a veritable history of vaudeville can be found in the films of James Cagney, from the depiction of the prologue business that provided live entertainment in between movie showings in Footlight Parade (1933) to the career of the ultimate showman, George M. Cohan, in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). In the latter film, there is a reference to an acrobat act called Lewis and Clark; I wonder whether Simon might have remembered that reference when he christened the comedy team of Al Lewis and Willy Clark, the title characters of The Sunshine Boys.


For me, Neil Simon tends a bit to the sentimental and superficial, but The Sunshine Boys is neither. Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) is a demanding, unhappy man who refuses to acknowledge his failing memory or the herculean efforts of his nephew-manager Ben (Richard Benjamin) to get him work. The opening sequence shows a nervous Ben waiting for Willy to show up for an audition for a Frumpy’s potato chip commercial. On his way to the audition, Willy zigs when he should have zagged, and winds up venting his spleen to an auto mechanic (F. Murray Abraham) at the address he has mistaken for the right one. When he realizes his mistake, he heads out, again in the wrong direction, only to be corrected by the mechanic. He gets a chance to read for the commercial well after the last minute due to Ben’s persistence, but forgets his lines and insults the director (Howard Hesseman) and the product. Matthau’s air of entitled irritation sets the tone perfectly for his crucial confrontation with his old partner Al Lewis (George Burns), which comes about when Ben secures a major television appearance for Willy, but only if he and Al perform their famous doctor routine as part of a retrospective of American comedy.


Simon retreads his Odd Couple theme, with Willy a perfect slob and Al, his orderly, slightly prissy opposite. When he learns Al will be at his apartment in a matter of minutes, Willy hastily tries to clean up or cover over the dirty dishes, cast-off clothes, and other debris—a scene we can imagine happening many times over the course of their 43 years as a team. Burns, however, doesn’t play Al as neurotically tidy as Felix Unger was. He has the understated, disapproving Jewish mother down pat as he indicates his distaste with a terse “you live like this?” and a quiet, dismayed look around the room. Willy is much more vocal about his hatred of Al’s sprayed speech and finger jabs. The contrast between the emotionally volatile Willy and the maddeningly even-keeled Al is a formula that has worked beautifully for comedy teams through the ages—just consider how George Burns’ straight-man routine set off his wife Gracie Allen’s ditzy comedy perfectly—but highlights how difficult it can be to mesh such differing temperaments.


The rehearsal for the television show is a fascinating and surprisingly intense scene. Al and Willy don some funny wigs, make-up, and costumes and perform the routine. Full of corny jokes and a blonde bombshell of a nurse (Lee Meredith) as the butt of sexist and sexual gags, the doctor routine is nonetheless wildly entertaining and enthralling. These two showmen have the timing of a fine Swiss watch and somehow make the material feel fresh and involving. When the routine eventually blows up before the finish as Willy attacks Al, his irritation with Al’s spitting and finger poking past reason, I was heartbroken. The magic stopped, with a crucial moment of table-turning—Al broke Willy’s heart by quitting the act abruptly without a word—evening the score between the two men. Ross’ camerawork, getting close to the actors as the tension mounts, forms a satisfying climax to a symphony of bickering.


In general, Ross does a remarkable job of opening this play up for the screen, choosing locations and images that amuse as much as the snappy dialogue. The opening shot shows the fabled Palace Theatre, the goal of every vaudevillian, fronted by a statue of the legendary George M. Cohan with a pigeon perched on his head. Even just watching one of the boats people used to drive crossing a bridge from New Jersey to New York, with Burn’s disembodied voice whining along with the wheels of the car, was visual hilarity. Ross’ fluid camera works as well in elevators and offices as it does on the streets of Manhattan.

Picture 10

It is hard to fault the work of Burns and Matthau, both brilliant comic actors. Nonetheless, the much-younger Matthau—54 to Burns’ 80 years—could not suppress his physical vigor and seemed a mismatch for Burns. Watching his gangly form smoothly chasing a slow and stiff Burns around a couch is very funny, but highlights the degree to which Matthau does not play older than his years. Yes, he is great at sneaking cigars and eating the salty foods his doctor warned him against, but the infirmities of old age never really come from the bone.


Richard Benjamin is a bit of the unsung hero of this film, just as he is with his fictional uncle. His work as a go-between, however, is crucial to humanizing Willy and keeping him in contact with the world around him. He clearly loves and admires his uncle, and is proud of the legacy of Lewis and Clark. Willy has not adjusted to being an old man, nor has he moved with the times. He claims to be more in touch than Al, who lives with his daughter in New Jersey (“I see everything that’s going on in the world. Look! I see old people, I see young people, nice people, bad people. I see hold-ups! I see drug addicts! Ambulances! Car crashes! Jumpers from buildings! I see everything!”), but, in fact, he has withdrawn. Benjamin hits all the right notes as the comic scapegoat for Willy, but he also brings an emotional heart to the relationship that gives us a reason to care.


One thing vaudevillians could do that today’s comic talents seem unable to grasp is take a performance to its proper conclusion. Instead of starting a joke and developing it, modern comedies tend to flounder and spin out of control. The Sunshine Boys shows how even the most time-worn material can be spun gold in the hands of veteran entertainers who understand how to tell a story—beginning, middle, and end.

4th 07 - 2013 | 18 comments »

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) / The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Directors: Nathan Juran, Gordon Hessler


By Roderick Heath

Ray Harryhausen’s death this past May genuinely pained me, like so many fellow film lovers who had grown up with his works. Harryhausen’s work kept the faith in cinema’s capacity to make the illusory and the impossible come to life on the big screen. Whilst the grand old man of movie magic hadn’t done any new work of note since 1981, his life provided a link with the golden age of studio cinema, and beyond that, through his mentors, to the pioneering roots of film. Nerds of many stripes loved Harryhausen, not just for fashioning images that fuelled their imaginations and brightened up the dolour of existence, but also because he seemed one of us. Like a much later generation of filmmakers who would try conjuring epic cinema through backyard thrift and wit, Harryhausen began as an adolescent enthusiast and tinkerer, one who watched King Kong (1933) one too many times.


Harryhausen sought out the mentorship of Kong’s effects maestro, Willis H. O’Brien, who had forged his famous stop-motion techniques, a version of animation working with malleable figures rather than drawn cells. In 1949, having worked under Frank Capra and George Pal, Harryhausen gained his first feature film credit alongside O’Brien with Mighty Joe Young. Four years later, after crafting a handful of shorts, he helped make The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, partly inspired by a story by his boyhood friend Ray Bradbury, but really a variant on King Kong, albeit one that dragged the mythos into the Atomic Age. Harryhausen’s effects immediately became a kind of film star in their own right.


Harryhausen followed up Beast with It Came from Beneath the Sea (1954), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), all produced on tight Columbia Pictures budgets that severely limited their scope and drama. Nonetheless, they were highly profitable and are still huge fun, quintessential experiences of the era’s scifi craze, shot full of imagery that helped create a lexicon of the fantastic in cinema that’s more powerful than ever. Harryhausen forged a partnership with producer Charles H. Schneer that would hold until Harryhausen’s retirement. The team first paired with Nathan Juran on Twenty Million Miles to Earth, a former art director who had won an Oscar on John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) and had moved into fantastic cinema with the weak Beast rip-off The Deadly Mantis (1957). Looking for a more expansive and spectacular field in which to exercise his gifts, Harryhausen spearheaded a turn from scifi monsters to mythology and adventure for the first time with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, crossbreeding special-effects-based spectacle with traditional swashbuckling heroics. For the first time, Harryhausen got to make a feature in colour, and he debuted his new technique, called Dynamation, which allowed more sophisticated, layered interaction between photographic elements.


Harryhausen was always deeply involved with developing his projects and the aesthetics of his films, writing storylines and often dictating their visuals. This was one reason he became identified as their essential auteur over the credited director, on top of the fact that he was often accused of picking journeymen over greater directors to make sure the spotlight remained on his work. This wasn’t exactly true: amongst the directors Harryhausen worked with were Juran, Cy Endfield, Don Chaffey, Gordon Hessler, and Desmond Davis, all talented and engaged smiths of genre cinema who had a way with arresting imagery. Harryhausen and Juran meshed particularly well, as Juran had a sense of decorative colour and design that fleshed out Harryhausen’s worlds, as well as a strong sense of craft. 7th Voyage and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) stand as Harryhausen’s best films, both triumphs of a particularly lustrous and stylised, yet also earthy and robust, brand of adventure filmmaking.


Harryhausen’s material was cleverly pitched on a level that appealed both to the youth audience, which loved the colour and fantastic intricacy of his work, and to older filmgoers. His films stood fairly lonely throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, when it was widely assumed that to be hip, fantastic films had to be either self-mocking or else loaded with loud satiric or allegoric import: Harryhausen stuck mostly to a tone of bare-boned, unself-conscious intensity, but with suggestions of a deeper awareness. One of the most memorable sequences in 7th Voyage comes when evil magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher), for the sake of entertaining the Caliph of Baghdad and his court, transforms a princess’s middle-aged, uptight handmaiden Sadi (Nana DeHerrera) into a bizarrely erotic, blue-skinned snake woman who dances with liberated, but deeply disturbing joy, until she almost strangles herself with the new tail she’s not quite aware of. The undercurrents of this scene exemplify the sensibility behind the Harryhausen brand, distilling suggestive and polymorphic ideas into a colourful and deceptive sequence, and also presenting a perfect unity of the special effects and Bernard Herrmann’s scoring.


In 7th Voyage, Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) is transporting his fiancé, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), whose marriage to Sinbad will seal a peace between Baghdad and her native kingdom Chandra. On the way, he rescues Sokurah from the rampaging assault of a cyclops when his ship anchors off the mysterious island of Colossa. In the process of escaping the cyclops and protecting Sinbad’s crew, Sokurah loses the magic lamp that is his most prized possession. Sokurah is desperate to return to Colossa to recover his lamp, which contains a genie in the shape of a boy, Burani (Richard Eyer), who can emerge to perform feats of wondrous magic. He tries to charm the caliph (Alec Mango) into granting him the ship he needs with displays of sorcery, but Sinbad convinces the caliph it’s too dangerous. Sokurah forces their hands, however, by shrinking Princess Parisa to the size of a small doll: the princess’s father threatens war on Baghdad if they can’t restore her, and they have to accept Sokurah’s word that the princess can be restored with ingredients only found on Colossa. Because so few regular sailors will dare the voyage, Sinbad hires a crew of criminals, who naturally prove mutinous; they are tamed by the terror of encountering Sirens that drive them mad off the Colossa coast. Landing on the island, Sinbad takes a party inland to search for the nests of the fabled Roc, a bird whose shell is a necessary ingredient for Sokurah’s potion. But the island proves a relentlessly dangerous place where Rocs and the Cyclops decimate Sinbad’s crew.


7th Voyage starts with a motif that would recur throughout Harryhausen’s subsequent fantasy works and that helped mark a new phase in Hollywood’s approach to historical cinema—engaging with the past through approximations of period aesthetics. The credits unfurl over illustrations that mimic the style of the art of the from which cultures the stories are drawn, introducing the audience to the iconography and traditional background of the stories before the narrative proper begins, and grounding the material in a sense of the arcane suddenly brought to life, in much the same way that Harryhausen shocks lumps of latex and metal to life. Juran’s sense of colour and design balances the lustrous location shooting, which, like many epics of the period, was done in Spain. The candy-coloured costuming of the court scenes treads close to pantomime, but the use of old Moorish structures as stand-ins for Baghdad helps give the film a sense of solid physicality, one that pays dividends as it moves to the Colossa coastline, a place filled with genuinely interesting and odd-feeling locations that give lustre to the sense of transportation: Harryhausen’s effects conjure a colossal carved face through which the adventurers must move to penetrate the inland of Colossa, with suggestions of lost civilisations and daemonic power.


Juran’s direction is canny in his sense of event: knowing a character like Sinbad doesn’t really need an introduction or an origin story, he can simply leap into the narrative, with Sinbad’s ship crawling through the dense fog near Colossa, and dissolving to a inward tracking shot that finds the good captain himself at the wheel of his ship, face stricken with keen attention and electric curiosity as well as concern as he ventures into a new unknown, thus immediately identifying the hero’s perspective with that of the audience. 7th Voyage actually strip-mines a couple of different Sinbad stories from the tales of Scheherazade, freely mixed with touches from The Odyssey, notably the Cyclops and the Sirens off Colossa, whose hideous screeching drives Sinbad’s mutinous crew mad but that he, Sokurah, and loyal mate Harufa (Alfred Brown) block out with waxed cloth in their ears. And again, King Kong’s influence is apparent in the motif of a lost world where monsters weird and fantastical stomp, visited by a ship penetrating a veil of fog.


The first time I ever saw 7th Voyage, I was struck by the unnerving predication of the film’s being partly set in Baghdad—this was around 1990, I was a kid, and the Gulf War was brewing, lending dark immediacy to the threat of the Sultan of Chandra (Harold Kasket) to reduce the city to “rubble and bleached bones.” Of course, being a kid, I still had an occasionally confused sense of film chronology: I recall exclaiming during the finale, when Sinbad and Parisa swing across a chasm on a rope, “Hey, they ripped that off from Star Wars!” Of course, it was the other way around. Indeed George Lucas’ love of referencing Harryhausen’s works was a recurring motif in his glitzy series.


The beauty of Harryhausen’s work always lay in the exacting sense of behaviour, the articulation and physicality of his figures, and the mischievous qualities of humour and sensitivity so often invested in them. It’s this aspect, difficult to describe, which helped them transcend the realm of mere effects and become creative visions. The Cyclops, great two-legged beasts with horned heads and centaur legs to match their singular eyes, seem like cruel mistakes of nature trapped by being too large to be agile and too dumb to think logically, but with their cages for prey, spits for roasting game, and cumbersome, spiked clubs seem barely less civilised and intelligent than the creeps who comprise most of Sinbad’s crew, and with whom they engage in a battle of brute force and arrogance. When the crew come across a hatching Roc, they promptly spear the huge, fluffy chick and roast it, the newborn’s thigh offering a hunk of meat the size of a buffalo leg. When the chick’s mother, a far larger, two-headed, eagle-like bird, returns and finds what’s happened, she understandably ravages the remnants of Sinbad’s crew and plucks Sinbad himself away to devour at her convenience. This was a quality Harryhausen had partly learnt from O’Brien, who offered such touches as his prehistoric birds scratching behind their ears and an often jarring sense of detail, like the broken-jawed Tyrannosaur King Kong defeated lying prone, dying but still breathing. Harryhausen followed O’Brien in this, his monsters often displaying wrenching, surprising emotion, peculiarly sensitising an audience to their plight: you feel sorry for the Ymir of Twenty Million Years and the Cyclops of these films even as they rampage, often because their human persecutors seem much less lively and individual: so often in Harryhausen there’s a sort of ecological spirit underlying the message. The overt violation of a tenuous balance of a rarefied natural order wrought by Sinbad’s crewmen is replicated less crassly but more dangerously by Sokurah’s alchemist arrogance, having gone so far as to chain a colossal dragon outside his cave laboratory as a watchdog.


The colour of 7th Voyage, the vivacity of its pace and the mutually complementary power of Harryhausen’s effects and Herrmann’s music rest on the bedrock of a well-shaped narrative, with a kind of simple but rigorous care that’s even rarer in modern equivalents than the exacting personality of Harryhausen’s effects. Characterisations are, of course, one-dimensional in an authentically mythic fashion: Sinbad is brave and honest, Sokurah is evil and wily, Parisa is sweet and plucky, Harufa is loyal and doomed. The younger audience gets a figure to empathise with in Burani, who is essential to the narrative and whose desire to escape his supernatural life accords with Sinbad and Parisa’s tragic frustration in her plight, and contrasts Sokurah’s merciless hunger for power and the threat of war hanging over their respective cities. The clarity of the plotting in Kenneth Kolb’s script, which borders on the naïve but retains integrity, keeps its flow of cause and effect surprisingly precise, even elegant, each element informing another. Parisa’s plight is not just a plot motivator, but a superbly utilised device: with her tiny stature, she can help spring the lock of the cage where the cyclops puts the crew. There’s a lovely sequence of chintzy fantasy in which Parisa realises she can slide down the spout of the lamp to visit Burani within and learn the phrase that calls him out. She finds a pellucid space where fog flows out a tablet and a poem-puzzle that holds the key to freeing Burani, and the boy himself in solitary imprisonment, delighted by the Princess’s visitation but melancholy in his fate as a slave to the will of men: the film aptly fades out on the lad, now human, gleefully taking the helm of Sinbad’s ship. The cyclical rebirth of Burani is echoed by the self-induced destruction of Sokurah. The amusingly literal device he provides for Sinbad’s crew to defend themselves from the Cyclops, a huge crossbow that takes a dozen men to load, is finally used on Sokurah’s pet dragon, which then promptly falls in death on its master.


The finale, in which Parisa drops the lamp into lava according to the rhyme, looks forward to Peter Jackson’s finale for his The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Jackson, of course, being another contemporary movie wizard much influenced by O’Brien and Harryhausen. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) betrayed the influence in its Mines of Moria scenes that mirrored the environs of Sokurah’s underground castle, whilst its dragon protector surely inspired the one guarding Gringotts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and its film version. It’s not just the ingenuity of Harryhausen’s effects and Juran’s design here that made their work so powerfully formative, but its genuine artistry, the care of the lighting and framing, the gift for capturing the flavour of the arcane with ruins of civilisations and lost lore rediscovered, in the midst of primal terrors and alchemic nightmares. Juran’s fondness for high and low angles turn every element in the film into an aspect of a drama built around size in a dialectic of relative strength. Sokurah appears as a silhouetted figure sneaking into Parisa’s palace bedchamber to curse her, her arm seen getting smaller and smaller on the bed, whilst later he looms over her as colossally as the Cyclops do over the others. The taboo is evoked throughout, from Sinbad’s initial knock on Parisa’s cabin door, rebuked by Sadi, to Sokurah warning crewmen he leads not to drink from a stream he claims is poisoned, but they soon find tastes like wine, a different kind of poison in the context of a dangerous land.


The finale’s eye-popping set-piece is Sinbad’s battle with a skeleton animated to glowering, ferocious life, armed with sword and shield and duelling the hero in the midst of Sokurah’s castle. Sinbad, faced with the impossibility of killing such an enemy, tricks the skeleton into following him up a spiral staircase from which it falls and breaks to pieces. Over a half-century later, this sequence is still astounding, and perhaps more so for knowing that the choreography wasn’t being exactingly mapped out with computers, but rather by Harryhausen’s hand and eye. Of course, Harryhausen tried to top this in the climax of Jason and the Argonauts with a small army of such skeletons battling the heroes. If there’s a dated aspect to 7th Voyage now, it lies only in the blandly American presences of Matthews and Grant, whereas British character actor Thatcher’s magnificent hambone zeal is hugely entertaining. Juran went on to make with Matthews the more overtly juvenile Jack the Giant Killer (1961), almost a remake of 7th Voyage that also featured Matthews and Thatcher, and the horror movie The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1972).


Harryhausen did not return to Sinbad as a subject for 15 years. The changes that went on in the world and the film industry in that time were enormous, and Harryhausen relocated to England, joining a small band of American filmmakers who were finding a more rewarding production base there. The interval between 7th Voyage and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is telling, less in the look and quality of Harryhausen’s work and the film, which does a great job of evoking the saturated colour and epic craft of the earlier film, but in the approach it takes to the same basic story: where 7th Voyage is bouncy and comic book, Golden Voyage is terser in dialogue and storyline, tougher and less primly naïve, if also less spectacular and vibrant. The success of One Million Years B.C. (1966), largely owing to the incandescent sex appeal of Raquel Welch, was followed by the nearly ignored The Valley of Gwangi (1968), and a five-year gap intervened before Golden Voyage’s release. Harryhausen’s product had been battered by inconsistent commercial performance, and he had learnt one lesson: Golden Voyage puts the busty beauty of English starlet Caroline Munro front and centre. Director Hessler, fated like too many other interesting directors to spring out of British genre cinema in the late ’60s to essentially disappear, had done striking work in horror films before this, and his subtly oneiric take on Harryhausen’s visions is loving and rich.


Although it’s often suggested that Harryhausen’s brand was ultimately rendered obsolete by the explosion of fantastic cinema at the end of the ’70s, I think it’s also true that explosion was largely due to the success of Golden Voyage, which revealed there was a new audience hungry for old-fashioned thrills. Sinbad was played this time by John Philip Law, the most conspicuously Aryan of movie stars appearing with dyed-black hair, an American who had become a stalwart in European cinema. His Sinbad is a touch more roguish, if no less ultimately good, in a fashion that looks forward to Indiana Jones as a gritty soldier of fortune leaping into the unknown for good and glory. Like its predecessor, Golden Voyage pits Sinbad against an evil sorcerer and sends him to a mysterious land filled with atavistic peril: Tom Baker earned his epochal run as Doctor Who by playing Prince Koura, the magician with designs to ruling an Arabian city-state, trying to unite the three pieces of a wrought-gold dial that will give him unlimited power, anticipating the plot of Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), by another Harryhausen acolyte, Guillermo del Toro. One of the pieces of the crown falls fortuitously into Sinbad’s hands via a Coleridge allusion—the piece is dropped by a tiny winged homunculus created by Koura. The finger of fate is on Sinbad, as he’s visited by that dream of a mysterious dancer with a tattooed eye on her hand and visions of Koura. He finds the dancer, Margiana (Munro), is a slave in a merchant’s house, and, seeing the tattoo and recognising her import, manages to extract her at the price of also accepting the merchant’s bohemian son Haroun (Kurt Christian) as a crewman. Sinbad is enlisted by the Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), who has been so disfigured by Koura’s magic in his efforts to resist that usurper that he has to wear a mask. The Vizier gives Sinbad clues that point to the lost continent of Lemuria in the Indian Ocean as the location of a fountain of divine power, and he accompanies Sinbad in the adventure to retrieve the relic.


Harryhausen often turned his own showmanship into a subtext of his films: Sokurah’s malefic delight in exhibiting the transformed Sadi in 7th Voyage—“Behold!” he cries before shattering the urn that contains herr transformed self—is the cinema magician’s sneaky avatar, whilst Golden Voyage more darkly suggests the exhaustion as well as the thrill involved in conjuring life from clay. In one of the most fiendishly achieved, but subtle moments of Harryhausen’s craft, Koura is shown resuscitating one of the homunculi, patient and delighted father to an unholy, yet charming beast rising from a lump of artificial flesh to alert, scampering life ready to do mischief. Koura is slowly being aged to the point of wizened collapse by working his magic, a note that accords with Harryhausen’s explanation of his eventual retirement as owing to his wearying of labouring so long and hard on single projects when other filmmakers could make many more. Elsewhere in the film, Harryhausen proffers two sterling scenes of combat by the heroes with animated statues, the first with the figurehead of Sinbad’s own ship, brought to life by Koura to steal a map, and later a figure of Kali, the Indian goddess of cyclical destruction and rebirth, whose six arms present Harryhausen with one of his greatest challenges of articulation, solved with superlative skill.


Golden Voyage romps gleefully through its essentialist plot: screenwriter Brian Clemens, a stalwart hero of British film and TV genre writing at the time, is mischievous in developing some familiar themes but then distorting them, like orphaned Margiana’s anointed status by the eye tattoo that proves to mark her not, as usual in pulp fare, as a lost heir to a kingdom, but actually a chosen sacrifice/mate to a centaur worshipped as a god by the devolved inhabitants of Lemuria. The film moves through the crucial motifs of the mythic quest, a reminder that Harryhausen and Clemens had a grip on the innate structural sense Joseph Campbell identified. Such motifs come complete with riddle prophecy, delivered by the “Oracle of All Knowledge,” a horned spirit (played by an uncredited, marvellously weird Robert Shaw) that appears in a sacred flame like an eruption of the secret id of humankind. Although the narrative is determinedly traditional, it laces contemporary ideas as well as classical references throughout: whereas 7th Voyage is concerned with frustrated mating rituals, perfect for the repressed ’50s, here Haroun is a coded stoner-slacker needing some advanced application, whilst Margiana offers unabashed cheesecake in a role ironically defined by nascent emancipationist reflexes, as Sinbad, after glimpsing her delirious dancing form in a prophetic dream, liberates her from slavery and makes her one of his crew. There are hints of perverse metaphor as Margiana encounters her intended fate as bride of the centaur, whilst Haroun offers some comic relief redolent of Willie Best: “My heart is full of bravery!…But I have very cowardly legs.” Of course, Haroun mans up enough to become a possible successor to Sinbad, giving the Kali statue a shove over a precipice to save his master.


“There’s an old proverb I choose to believe in,” Sinbad says at one point, “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.” This becomes a running gag, and also reintroduces a thematic strand that runs through so many of Harryhausen’s works—counterbalancing the seriousness with which they question the nature of what’s alive with a belief in human audacity in the face of primal forces. Just as Jason in Jason in the Argonauts tells Zeus to his face that he wants to prove men can challenge the infinite, Sinbad repeatedly proves the value of his blend of guts and caution in taking on the mystical. The polycultural wonderland that Hessler, Harryhausen, and Clemens evoke here encompasses a variety of mythological traditions, keeping its hero in focus as a figure of early cross-cultural outreach and dynamism. The usual climactic battle of monsters takes on overtly symbolic aspects, as the Oracle predicts good and evil battling at the edge of eternity, fulfilled when the centaur is attacked by a griffin. Golden Voyage could have used a little more story complication, but the feel for storytelling minutiae is still strong, in Harryhausen’s effects, like the displays of fear on the homunculus’ face and the bewildered aggression of the centaur, and the production, particularly the excellent sound design that gives corporeal conviction and dread to moments like the figurehead tearing itself loose from its place with the crack of splintering wood. Care and vision are also apparent in the directing, culminating in the finale in which Koura becomes invisible, only to be caught out standing in the waters of the magic fountain, his shadow revealed; Sinbad stabs him, and the fountain turns blood red.


The success of Golden Voyage gave Harryhausen renewed vigour and clout, but fate proved unkind, as his next film, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), was released in the same summer as the first Star Wars hit. Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects themselves weren’t yet outmoded: inspired to take up the form by 7th Voyage, Phil Tippett would work on the likes of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Robocop (1987), and use his knowledge to help make the first CGI blockbuster Jurassic Park (1992) more convincing. What did become immediately passé was Harryhausen’s effort to produce special-effects-driven cinema without blockbuster budgeting, that could have added greater artisanal vigour and input to the almost cottage industry approach he had to his work. Eye of the Tiger, whilst not as bad as often painted, is still badly hampered by the sluggish, shapeless direction of Sam Wanamaker. Harryhausen bounced back for his final film, the glorious if camped-up Clash of the Titans (1981), but it was the end of an era.


It’s too tempting to turn a tribute to Harryhausen into another excuse to bash the era of CGI. CGI special effects’ crimes have been exaggerated, as many who work with the form are spurred by the same spirit as Harryhausen’s, but often without that crucial sense of personality and sparing approach to detail and problem-solving that invested his creations with unique life. One doesn’t have to be a luddite to see the difference between, say, the engagement with these creatures as entities with, say, the whirling robots of the Transformers movies or, indeed more aptly, the Kraken of the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), which become amorphous, characterless blotches of pixels by comparison with Harryhausen’s creatures. More importantly, too many of the movies around them are, compared to these voyages of Sinbad, equally amorphous and dreary successors. Harryhausen did not specialise in cinematic realism: he specialised in cinematic dreams.

14th 05 - 2013 | 9 comments »

The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Necklace (1973) / The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge (1974)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Richard Lester


By Roderick Heath

Few filmmakers have experienced such jarring switchbacks of fortune as Richard Lester. Largely neglected now, Lester’s career arc was unusual as an American who found his niche and breaks in Britain, and who was only intermittently able to communicate with his native land, which found his sensibility inimical. But for a time, Lester’s influence on mainstream cinema and television was pervasive thanks to the two films he made as vehicles for some rock band, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), works that largely invented the visual lexicon of the new youth-oriented, visually flashy pop culture, and the music video in particular. Lester’s style fused ideas from the French and British New Waves with flourishes borrowed from silent cinema, surrealist-accented pop art, and advertising. The free-flowing absurdism of Lester’s early films still casts a long shadow on comedy film and television—Zoolander (2001) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) stand amongst many recent films that owe much to the Lester aesthetic—but riles many more classically minded cinema cognoscenti. That’s partly understandable, for as well as exemplifying their era, Lester’s films often revelled in acerbic humour laced with satirical overtones and post-modern disrespect.


But such attitudes worked in a constant binary with underlying earnestness, conveyed in filmic terms through a deliberate scorn for certain formal qualities that disguises diligent adherence to deeper principles, at once abrasive and romantic, even poetic, culminating in his dreamy, tragicomic masterpiece Petulia (1968). The increasingly bitter flavour of Lester’s ’60s films, including How I Won the War (1967), Petulia, and The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), saw his brand wane, however, as he tried to ask more pointed questions of a zeitgeist he had fostered, but found no one yet in the mood to answer. Lester shifted gears in the ‘70s by moving into the kind of genre cinema he was inclined to send up and yet for which he also had deep affection. The retrospective disdain in which fanboys hold his splendid Superman II (1980) notwithstanding, that film actually represents a climax to Lester’s witty ransacking of the heroic canon in the preceding decade in a series of films that tried to find the beating heart of that tradition even whilst subverting its mystique by looking for the far more earthy, gauche, even venal qualities of legendary protagonists.


Lester’s box office touch remained inconsistent, as did the quality of his produce, but he managed to make several superlative, still highly underregarded pictures, including his icily funny thriller Juggernaut (1974), the melancholy romanticism of Robin & Marian (1976), his deadpan Casablanca rewrite Cuba (1979), and his expansive two-part take on that most famous of historical adventure novels, Alexandre Dumas’ Les Trois Mousquetiers, perhaps the singular achievement of English-language adventure cinema in the ’70s before Star Wars changed the game. In spite of his vast impact on popular fiction and the traditions of swashbuckling later translated into cinema, Dumas has rarely had much luck on film: other English-language versions of The Three Musketeers have featured the Ritz Brothers, Gene Kelly, and Chris O’Donnell, with predictably messy results. Lester’s robustly comedic, antiheroic take seems at first glance as disrespectful as others, except that under the surface buoyancy, the love of adventure, humour, romance, fun, and delicious danger in his adaptations is as pronounced as in any Errol Flynn movie, only with different emphases. Working for the entrepreneurial but fiery Salkind clan who would later produce the Superman films, and with a script adapted by George Macdonald Fraser, whose pungent imperialist satire buoyed the Flashman novel series Lester would soon film, Lester had a large budget and a great cast at his disposal. He produced a diptych that works as a love letter to the merrier pleasures of film.


The opening credits of The Three Musketeers depict D’Artagnan (Michael York) and his father (Joss Ackland) engaging in combat, as father teaches son the specifics of his trade. The peculiar visual effects emphasize each movement as a study in effort and force by blurring remnants shimmering around the figures. The secret trick the elder D’Artagnan tries to pass on to his son later proves useless; rather than elegant fencers, Lester makes it plain in intricate, mischievous variations that the Musketeer heroes and the people they fight are hardly nobly refined fighters. Rather they’re full-body battlers who will fight with anything they can get their hands on—wine jugs, sheets, flower pots, rakes; you name it, someone clobbers someone else over the head with it. Lester similarly extracts historically acute humour from the length of time it takes to load a flintlock pistol, or the difficulty in bringing to bear a 17th century rifle. Warfare great and small in Lester’s eyes is mostly a clumsy business engaged in by the unwillingly incompetent or the professionally practical, with talent in its arts defined less by refined skill practiced by everyone from martial artists to Jedi masters than by the physical wit of a monkey and durability of a farm horse.


In this way, Lester looked for the submerged link between slapstick comedy and swashbuckler action, but in a different manner to earlier films that tried such a crossbreed, like the George Sidney version of The Three Musketeers (1948), which featured Kelly, or The Crimson Pirate (1952). Lester adds a ruder physical edge to the rough and tumble that’s actually quite authentic to the rhythms and methods of street fighting from the period, part of an overall texture that suggests this was a far less elegant and gentlemanly time than commonly depicted, for all its fertile aesthetics. Lester’s approach is also at odds with the way blockbuster action would increasingly take on the essential mechanics of slapstick cinema and replace laughs with suspense (at least theoretically) generated by ridiculous destruction of infrastructure and unlikely physical robustness: Lester rather looks for the humour in ridiculous situations that action films usually encourage us to accept straight-faced. This fits well with Lester’s sinuous blend of selectively deromanticised derision and boisterous comedic energy. As such, though Lester’s take on the adventure canon would be supplanted by the more earnest stylings of Lucas, Spielberg, Milius et al. within a few years, the sensibility of Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) isn’t actually that different: the marketplace kidnapping in Raiders is actually a riff on a similar scene in the second episode of Lester’s epic. The constantly misjudged or overstretched legerdemain of its characters is the great source of Lester’s visual humour. For example, early in the diptych, D’Artagnan tries to take out Count Rochefort (Christopher Lee), the snotty, one-eyed villain he encounters whilst travelling to Paris, by swinging on a crane rope to knock him off his mount; where Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks would’ve succeeded effortlessly, D’Artagnan misses and finishes up lolling in the mud.


In spite of all this mischief, Lester and Fraser follow Dumas’ tale faithfully and capture its essence. Like his distant descendant in adventuring, Luke Skywalker, D’Artagnan journeys from bumpkin to knight of the realm, leaving home with romantic ideals and paternal advice that soon prove inadequate to reality’s shifting mores. With his family sword smashed and his head battered by Rochefort’s goons, he faces up to the Musketeers’ commander Treville (Georges Wilson) weaponless and penniless. Forced to find a way to prove himself up to membership in the Musketeer corps, he quickly earns himself three duels in a row with the scabrous trio of Athos (Oliver Reed), Aramis (Richard Chamberlain), and Porthos (Frank Finlay) during an attempt to chase down Rochefort. Before he can fight Athos in the courtyard of a convent, however, the quartet are interrupted by members of the personal guard of Cardinal Richelieu, who, seeking a chance to bust Musketeer heads and increase the Cardinal’s power under the cover of enforcing an anti-duelling edict, assault them. The Musketeers and D’Artagnan win against the larger force, however, and, accepted as a new friend by the loyal trio, D’Artagnan gets a share of money taken from a defeated enemy’s pocket.


D’Artagnan is able to set himself up as a cadet with a servant, Planchet (Roy Kinnear), and he chooses to live in the house of geriatric weirdo Bonacieux (Spike Milligan), less for the quality of lodgings than for the presence of Bonacieux’s young, buxom, haplessly clumsy wife Constance (Raquel Welch). D’Artagnan falls immediately in lust with Constance, whose day job as dressmaker to Queen Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) proves the surprising ticket to great affairs of state, as Constance is confidant to the Queen’s romance with the English Prime Minister, Lord Buckingham (Simon Ward). Richelieu (Charlton Heston) hopes to tighten his grip on the malleable dimwit, King Louis XIII (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and seeks to disgrace the Queen through this illicit romance. Richelieu turns to his operative Rochefort, who has his lover and partner in crime, Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway), pilfer studs from a diamond necklace the Queen gave to Buckingham, whilst Richelieu manipulates the King into revealing the affair. D’Artagnan volunteers his and his friends’ aid when he overhears Constance asking her husband to help, and the foursome dash to the Channel. Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are wounded by the Cardinal’s many assassins, but D’Artagnan gets to England and regains the rebuilt necklace from Buckingham. D’Artagnan makes it back in time, and the Musketeers, still alive, if tattered, help as he breaks into the palace and gives the necklace to the Queen. Seeking revenge, Milady seduces D’Artagnan whilst Rochefort kidnaps Constance: D’Artagnan discovers Milady’s secret shame whilst the Musketeers rescue Constance, and when Richelieu sends Milady to arrange for Buckingham’s assassination to prevent him helping Protestant rebels, she demands payment in the blood of the two lovers.


It was almost inevitable that Lester would take on Dumas, having already channelled his influence in the cinematic concept for The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night: four sharply contrasting, yet ultimately loyal friends who are most effective when together. The Salkinds provided Lester with an amazing cast of ’70s notables, befitting a drama in which every character requires a larger-than-life vivacity and charisma. Of course, of the three Musketeers, only Athos is a real character. Aramis, with his smooth ladies’ man style and religious affectations, and Porthos, a poseur who’s really a blunt instrument, are there for entertainment in the margins. In particular, Finlay delights in depicting Porthos’ efforts to maintain a respectable front whilst always giving in with disgust and gusto to the necessity of the moment.


Reed was cleverly cast as Athos, a boozy warrior-poet with secret sensitivity and half-quelled demons: it’s hard not to see it as the actor’s most perfect character avatar. Athos’ crucial revelation of his background and the romantic tragedy that caused him to leave behind his aristocratic life waits until the second film. The revelation cues both a fine piece of acting from Reed and one of Lester’s most splendid, visual epiphanies, a flashback that reveals Milady was his wife, branded with the mark of criminality, fairy-tale beauty in stained glass and flooding sunshine giving way to pungent physical horror as Milady’s branding is shown. York, at the height of his boyish Aryan beauty, is suitably dashing, with the correct amount of callow blitheness. Lester finds the embryonic James Bond aspect of D’Artagnan as he greedily, but essentially innocently, seduces married women and hops beds with impunity according to the bawdy precepts of the day. Nonetheless, under the colourful surface of Lester’s films they are, in following Dumas, a chronicle of D’Artagnan’s coming of age.


There’s a bildungsroman secreted somewhere in this tale, in spite of Dumas’ avoidance of most moral lessons, except the final, blunt one D’Artagnan learns through Constance and Milady. He takes what life offers as shamelessly as the Musketeers loot felled opponents’ purses and steal from a tavern under the guise of a brawl when money’s low. Lester is hip to the proto-existential lives of the Musketeers critic Terence Rafferty once acutely diagnosed in Dumas, as men who regard the political quandaries whirling around their heads with complete disinterest, caring only about their own small corner of history. “Y’know it strikes me we’d be better employed wringing Milady’s pretty neck than shooting these poor devils of Protestants,” Porthos declaims in one of the few moments of macrocosmic contemplation, “I mean, what are we killing them for? Because they sing Psalms in French, and we sing them in Latin?” To which Aramis ripostes, “Porthos, have you no education? What do you think religious wars are all about?” In a modern setting Porthos’ qualms would be the stuff of great drama in a moral struggle, but in the period context, Lester and Fraser follow Dumas in making them essentially absurd: life is generally short and brutal anyway, so who cares? The machinations of Richelieu take place on a plane far above the roundelay of eating, drinking, fighting, and fornicating that is the life of the Musketeers.


Lester’s improvisational sketches on the framework of Dumas’ tale elaborate this blithely cynical attitude to period society into a veritable systematology. The films’ surfaces are rendered in dazzlingly lacquered colours, gorging the eye with lush framings of lovingly wrought costuming and décor evoking all the pretences of this past, enabled by David Watkin’s graceful photography. Washer women labour, soldiers drill, markets bustle, fine ladies entertain themselves, and eminences strut in showy apparel amidst scenes of gritty commotion or refined leisure in shots that could have been culled from Tintoretto or Rembrandt. But scratching those surfaces is an insidious humour that eats away at the historicism with scabrous modernity and bolshy perspective in contemplating the human reality of a hierarchical society, and the marginal people in historical dramas suddenly gain voice. Lester’s familiar device, pioneered in the likes of The Knack…and How to Get It (1966) of using multitracked sound and post-dubbing to fill out the aural margins of his films with onlookers and bit players whose under-the-breath mutterings, bellyaching, quips, and insights offset and comment on the main action, here is used to eat at the material, termite-like, in Lester’s extended piece of film self-criticism. One classic example of this comes in The Four Musketeers when Milady’s litter bearers, after setting their employer on terra firma, turn away and start grousing: “Bloody arm…she’s put on weight.” “Yeah, why don’t she buy a horse?” Or a mob of washer women waving farewell to a departing army, with cries including “Y’better come back and pay – I’ll find ya if y’don’t!” and “Nice to see the back of them then.”


The offhand quality of Dumas’ drama, with the Musketeers serving less the rather unimpressive humans who fill the great roles of state than the ideal of those roles and their own honour and desire for action, is drawn out in this fashion by Lester to become a sneaky kind of substance under the gallivanting. Perhaps taking cues from Ken Russell’s hellish historical satire The Devils (1971), he presents the King and Queen as airheaded layabouts playing about with human toys: the Queen gaily rotating on a hand-cranked merry-go-round and the King playing chess with trained, costumed dogs on a giant chessboard. Richelieu casually demonstrates his strategic mastery by making a move that sets the dogs to chaotic rebellion. Landscapes of teeming beauty are crossed by whining Planchet barely hanging onto his horse, perfectly arranged cotillions in beautifully appointed circumstances whirl around a boob of a king who can’t dance at all, and thunderous cannons blast wide of fortresses as the artillery officer kicks the dirt in frustration for his terrible aim.


The tone becomes even more acidic in the second half when the lunching royals dine blithely in front of trees festooned with hanged criminals. Kinnear, a terrific comic actor who tragically died when recreating this role in Lester’s The Return of the Musketeers (1989), is the engine of much of the diptych’s humour and sarcastic perspective, as Planchet is lumped with every thankless task, from dashing across continents to deliver vital messages to carrying the picnic basket and weapons under enemy fire whilst the others dart off and leave him to it. He’s offset by a female equivalent, de Winter’s servant Kitty (Nicole Calfan): both of them get slapped in the face by their employers and blurt out “Thank you” in return. But Kitty gets the better end of it when she’s able to seduce D’Artagnan while her mistress is out, whereas Planchet’s efforts to play the swashbuckling hero in fights often turn into disasters, as when he tries to uproot a tree to use in bashing Rochefort, or tries to swing into a fray on a rope and crashes straight into the floor.


Although Lester channels elements of the long history of cinematic adventuring in Hollywood and European cinema into his Musketeer films, in many ways, these movies feel closer to Chinese and Japanese historical action cinema, in the conceptual approach to action scenes, the intense, almost otherworldly colours of their period visions, and the carefree blend of comedy and action. Set-piece duels between D’Artagnan and Rochefort, one where they battle in the dark with lanterns that can be closed off, each trying to surprise the other in a dance of dark and light, and another where they try to keep their balance whilst fencing on a frozen lake, certainly feel close to wu xia, though they deliberately lack the physical grace of their Asian counterparts. In a similar vein is Milady’s fondness for exotic and concealed weapons, like glass daggers filled with acid and a hair ornament that doubles as a piercing weapon with which she tries to kill a frantically improvising Constance.


Moreover, Lester revels in his prototypical Steampunk imagination, presenting anachronistic versions of modern machines, gadgets, and gimmicks, from a prehistoric pinball machine to an experimental submarine, all run by gears and muscle, and often contributing to his larger point about the nature of this pre-consumer society where the work of many makes fun for a very few. When D’Artagnan visits Buckingham in London, Lester has a group of Native American warriors gathered in the hallway just outside the Prime Minister’s gorgeously furnished study, as if there’s a Terrence Malick film being shot in the next room (and, figuratively speaking, there is), another sign, like the machines and the griping servants, that the modern world is being born whilst no one is looking. Later, the Indians shock Milady when she tries to assassinate Buckingham and spoil her plan, the oblivious, amused faces of the New World bemused by the beautiful evil of the Old.


Dunaway, at the height of her career and beauty, played many antiheroines in the ’70s, and Milady fits right in, with her trademark neurotically icy glare sharpened to a point where it seems she can disembowel a man at 30 paces with just a look. One of the few great villainesses and a distinctive prefiguring of the femme fatale figure in pulp fiction, Dumas’ creation of de Winter is perfectly embodied, and the one character in The Three/Four Musketeers who is almost entirely in command throughout, both physically and mentally. Dunaway has the wit to play the part deadly straight, the right physical as well as emotive intelligence in her playing apparent in her pause to hitch up her skirts whilst engaging in a murderous cobra-and-mongoose dance with D’Artagnan; her all-in catfight with Welch is actually the most genuinely brutal battle in the diptych. De Winter’s plague-like evil has roots in misogyny and reactionary disgust—Athos, really the Comte de la Faire, almost strangled her dead after discovering she was not the unspoilt gem he thought her—which hints at the motives that drive her even as she becomes pathological in her determined hate for D’Artagnan and Constance, whom she finally strangles to death in a suitably jarring moment of mortal savagery that marks the end of the boyish malarkey.


The Four Musketeers has a touch less drive than The Three Musketeers, but its darker, artier tone and genuinely intense finale mark it as superior, where the overflow of the first episode is a bit like a chocolate buffet at times. Lester displays a finite judgement—not always one he wielded effectively in other films—on when to cool the hijinks and let the story’s compulsion grow. He brings out richer hues and undertones to the adventurers in the second episode in Athos’ guilt and hate, Rochefort’s perverse ardour for and control over Milady, and Milady’s ruthless behaviour. One salient scene shows Milady, after seeing of D’Artagnan from her boudoir, stripping down and preparing for a bath, only to find the water’s been stained red by dripping blood from Rochefort’s hand, wounded in an earlier scuffle with D’Artagnan. Rochefort spitefully regards Milady and forces her to kiss him to reclaim his potency in a moment that reminds me of James Woods’ sleazy pimp mind-fucking his similarly, professionally immoral prostitute-protégé Sharon Stone in Casino (1995), and with similar psychosexual aspects apparent in the relationship. Lester turns the camera back to the bloody bath to visualise the morbid underpinnings and innate hatefulness of the partnership.


Later, de Winter reverses the roles in her way in a superbly orchestrated sequence in which Buckingham has her imprisoned with his Puritan valet Felton (Michael Gothard) as her guard, figuring the rigid religiose won’t be affected by her charms. But Milady goes to work with her insidiously manipulative genius in pretending to be a secret Protestant, and seduces Felton. The white-clad Milady is rendered suitably angelic in shafts of painterly light in her cell, a fetish figure of suffering that releases the Puritan’s erotic nature as he sneaks glances down her corset. Lester borrowed Gothard from Russell for his capacity to project deeply twisted erotic repression, and his utter capitulation to Milady sees him assassinate Buckingham in the belief his boss has betrayed the La Rochelle rebels—Milady has successfully destroyed another two men.


Milady and Rochefort’s coldly programmatic amorality offsets the Musketeers’ simple immorality and inevitably demands a more engaged reaction to evil from them. The finale set-piece has the Musketeers do battle on convent grounds with Rochefort and his men whilst Milady, now rendered almost hallucinogenically pure in a nun’s habit and bathed in light in her ironic ascension to new heights of villainy, penetrates the interior and kills Constance before being caught by Athos. D’Artagnan, shocked and desolated by Constance’s death, does battle with Rochefort in the convent chapel and skewers him with a broken sword that piquantly sprouts out of his back and into a Bible. Milady is sentenced to be executed by Athos himself, and Lester pulls off a final moment of strange beauty as she’s rowed across a river, emblematic of death, to be beheaded. It’s sad that Welch’s Constance has to meet such an end, of course, but the role gave Welch the chance to send up her own sexpot image whilst showing off surprising skill as a farceur; the result is hardly as empowering as Welch’s badass in 100 Rifles (1969), but it still provides a terrific twist on the stock figure of the victimised lady fair. Everyone else in the cast is noteworthy, particularly Kinnear and Lee, the latter of whom extracts notes of erotic evil, mordant world-weariness (“Perhaps I’ll die of old age,” Rochefort mutters before an incompetent firing squad), and slavish loathing of his master the Cardinal. “I also hate you,” Rochefort tells Richelieu, who replies calmly, in priestly metre, “I love you, my son.” Heston, for his part, extracts every inch of theatrical grandiosity from his role, one of the few real character turns of his career.

“One for all and all for one, which loosely translated means 10 for him, 10 for him, 10 for you, and 10 for me.”

13th 04 - 2013 | 3 comments »

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Director: Russ Meyer


By Roderick Heath

Roger Ebert’s death last week at the age of 70 brought on a wealth of lionising appreciations and articles, most of which celebrated the obvious and salient fact that he was a dean of mainstream American film criticism. There was another Ebert, however, a side the renowned critic was half-embarrassed by later in life, and one that his one-time partner in critical volleying Gene Siskel often used as a punch-line. Ebert had been a gaudily talented, furtively scurrilous dilettante screenwriter who collaborated with, of all people, Russ Meyer, the closest thing American cinema has ever had to a Rabelais. Ebert wrote three films for Meyer, two under pseudonyms: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up! (1976), and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979), all frenetic, comedic, deliriously eroticised satires that contemplate the sheer randy zest of the American populace in filmmaking that moves as if demonically possessed. This collaboration between Meyer, who had risen slowly from independent sexploitation productions to signing a three-picture contract with 20th Century Fox, and Ebert, a Midwestern film nerd with a literate intelligence blended with hip, ruthless wit that was carefully leavened by his later persona as cuddly advocate, could only have happened in 1970. This, of course, was when Hollywood was desperate to connect with youth audiences who, even then, were the life blood of cinema attendance, but whose tastes were notoriously hard to cater to. Asked to create a follow-up for Mark Robson’s famously awful, enormously successful 1967 hit Valley of the Dolls, adapted from Jacqueline Susann’s bestseller, Meyer and Ebert transformed the project into their own freewheeling satire on both the Hollywood scene, which had been infected by the counterculture but still offered excess par excellence, and the Hollywood product itself.


Beyond the Valley of the Dolls traces essentially the same arc of morality play about talented, pretty youngsters who hit Los Angeles hoping for fame and fortune but find the seedy underbelly of the Dream Factory. Susann’s story had the appeal of both waggling illicit and vicarious thrills under the nose whilst reinforcing prejudices for the receptive. Meyer and Ebert provide thrills illicit and vicarious alright, through the veil of mimicking the forms and platitudes of soap operas, magazine editorials, talk radio shows, and parochial moralists. The cast’s uncertainty as to whether they were in a comedy or not, an uncertainty enforced by their fear of embarrassing Ebert by having to ask, explains and surely contributed to the film’s volatile temperament: the motifs are authentic, the style ridiculous, the vulgarity supreme, and the emotions often strangely real. Indeed, that uncertainty says a lot about how silly much of Hollywood’s bread-and-butter output is. Funny thing is, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has a perversely acute prognosticative streak under its cheeky leer: Ebert’s script riffed on the then still-reverberating shock and notoriety of the Manson murders, and chose as his villain a figure based loosely on Phil Spector, who much later would reveal a genuine homicidal side to his outsized eccentricity. At a time when all-female rock bands were practically unheard of, Meyer, a professional libertine, and Ebert, dipping his toe in that pond, drummed up a film about one that became a sort of incidental founding text: watching Floria Sigismondi’s much undervalued The Runaways (2011) about that breakthrough act feels like art imitating life imitating art. Similarly, Beyond the Valley helped to invent a subgenre making fun of the licentious fantasies the explosion of the pop music scene in the ’60s engendered in the public consciousness, to be followed by films like Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), and creating in such a film an ironic touchstone for people who really aspired to success in music.


Beyond the Valley begins with The Kelly Affair, an all-girl rock band composed of ballsy but cute singer Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), doe-eyed bassist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and sassy black drummer Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), playing for a high school dance. Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) is their manager and Kelly’s boyfriend. Fed up with such paltry scenes, they decide to drive out to L.A. to pursue major success, where Kelly visits her aunt and last remaining family member, Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), a successful fashion designer and sole inheritor of the large family estate, because Kelly’s mother had been disowned as a single mother. Susan, charmed by Kelly, wants to give her a cut of the inheritance, but her scheming, square lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) objects, calling Kelly a fraud. Success proves instantaneous for The Kelly Affair, thanks to their introduction by Susan and Porter to flamboyant music promoter Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar), whose nightly parties, explosions of hip debauchery, are infamous.

Beyond lesbians

Z-Man is immediately taken with Kelly and, after changing the band’s name to The Carrie Nations in reference to the saloon-smashing suffragette, he turns them into a sensation. But the shadow of success and all its evils now falls upon the band, as the cornucopia of sex, drugs, and money they now have access to puts them at the mercy of vampires of many kinds. Kelly is pulled away from Harris, who regards Z-Man and his world dubiously, and thrust into the arms of muscly Aryan gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett). Harris then gives in to the attentions of greedily sensual porn starlet Ashley St. Ives (Edy William). Petronella falls for a law student moonlighting as a waiter at Z-Man’s parties, Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), but in a distraught mood, sleeps with hot-blooded boxing champ Randy Black (Jim Iglehart). Casey, disaffected with men, heads into a lesbian affair with Susan’s collaborator Roxanne (Erica Gavin).

Beyond credits

What follows is a remorseless burlesque on the tropes and conceits of trashy melodramas, inflected with Meyer and Ebert’s determined indulgence of that trash. Meyer was a contradictory figure: an extremely talented filmmaker with one of the best eyes for shot and cut in American cinema at the time, he was nonetheless extremely happy to celebrate the niche he found for himself as Hollywood’s greatest sex fiend, whilst playing the waggish commentator on the state of the nation’s bedroom life and psyche. Ebert’s film nerd streak comes out in some fairly obvious touches, like naming Porter Hall after the ubiquitous player of craven roles in ’30s films. A weird flourish that kicks the movie off suggests an immediate and forceful attempt to jam the film’s excessive and gaudy aesthetic in the audience’s faces, and also doubles as another film freak joke, as the climactic scenes unspool under the opening credit. Thus, the film plays the noir game of setting up a shift into flashback (and it should be remembered that Beyond the Valley, like most of Meyer’s films, becomes a noir tale, filtered through a distorting prism), but with the added gag of the credits being styled like the closing credits, as if the projectionist has messed up the reels. The utter bizarreness of what’s glimpsed on screen in this opening does eventually make sense later—well, sort of.

Beyond Party

The riotous cornucopia of pansexual and pharmaceutical indulgence that is Z-Man’s abode provides a gladiatorial arena for much of the drama, with Z-Man its deliciously weird master of ceremonies. Kelly’s first entrance to his house is a brilliant display of both Meyer’s visual technique and Ebert’s cheekily loquacious writing, with Z-Man introducing Kelly to each of the vital figures of the upcoming drama with a stream of airily literate descriptions: “Languid Roxanne finds beauty, that delicate pinch of feminine spice with which she often flavours her interludes. Ah, look there, Lance Rocke! Greek god and part-time actor. See how well he performs? The golden hair, the bedroom eyes, the firm young body, all are available for a price!” Z-Man’s ornate word flow and status as unofficial narrator anticipates the more sustained experiment in narration in Ultra-Vixens, and also, weirdly, has a certain rhythm in common with Ebert’s speaking style in his later TV days. Meyer does spectacular work here as he leaps from character to character, interaction to interaction, entwining conversations, many between dancing people, into a rhythmically pulsing visual music, as it is in an earlier montage where his images and the arguments of the band over heading to L.A. turn into a kind of audio-visual beat poetry.


A certain loopy, sarcastic poetry does indeed inflect Ebert’s script, especially through the fount of verbose entertainment that is Z-Man. His declaration about his own party, “This is my Happening and it freaks me out!”, turns ephemeral hipster slang into Shakespearean epigram, whilst he later admonishes Lance, “I accept your fealty and do nobly return it, and beseech you to get thine ass in gear and gird thine angry loins,” and segues into his immortal cry of lunatic offence, “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” Reminiscent of Jay Robinson’s fey Caligula in The Robe (1954) whilst anticipating Joel Grey’s pansexual emcee in Cabaret (1972) but more fundamental to the drama, Z-Man is the singular brilliant creation of Beyond the Valley. The spirit and embodiment of an unfettered, polymorphous age, Z-Man fancies himself as Virgil, the orchestrator of tours through Hades, as well as the seductive Mephistopheles dangling temptation, and finally succumbing to it himself, as his own bizarre secret is exposed in the course of sexual humiliation—he’s a hermaphrodite, or a transvestite, or something (Lance calls him “a really ugly broad”) a twist made up almost at the last minute by Ebert, but anyway he runs about for the rest of the film with dinky little tits out—sending him spiralling into a homicidal delirium.


If there’s a weakness to the film, it’s that it mimics the structure of what it’s sending up a little too faithfully (a common fault of such send-ups; 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is a recent example), laying out the separate travails of the band and the people they know in overdrawn but not always hugely funny terms. Kelly is manipulated by Lance and abused by Porter, whom she seduces although he’s so uptight he won’t even take off his socks before getting into bed, in a sequence that can best be described as slightly amusing. Emerson catches Petronella and Randy in bed and then gets run down by the boxer when he refuses to budge from in front of his car. Like many of the professional women in the melodramas exemplified Douglas Sirk’s camp works, Susan is rescued from the sterility of success when her former boyfriend Baxter Wolfe (Charles Napier) comes back into her life. Harris, increasingly addled and made impotent by narcotics, is soon given the boot by Ashley, who contemptuously suggests he might be gay, and in steaming humiliation he assaults the lippy Lance in Z-Man’s house. Badly beaten, he retreats to Casey’s house where they get stoned and sleep together, only for Casey to awaken the next morning without remembering how it went down, and throw Harris out in horror. But Beyond the Valley’s wicked streak finally crystallises when the story lines collide in a hospital waiting room after Harris has attempted suicide by throwing himself from the rafters of a TV studio where the band was performing. A stream of shocking revelations, including the fact Casey is pregnant by Harris, who’s feared to be paralysed, is accompanied by a droning organ score of the type endemic to soap opera. A kind of critical mass of absurd tropes is reached, and the only place for the narrative to go is into orgiastic self-destruction, something Z-Man is happy to provide.


Beyond the Valley of the Dolls bemused and delighted many critics and viewers upon release and ever since for largely the same reasons: through its unabashed willingness to pander precisely the things it was sending up, its an excessiveness of style and attitude, and its eruptive, declarative embrace of what was supposed to be, in more familiar style, winking or happenstance pleasures for stoned collegians and raincoat-clad weirdoes. In this fashion, the director and screenwriter helped to erect something that others had tried but without the cred or the contempt for boundaries: studied, self-reflexive camp (one that pays tribute to an earlier effort by having Casey and Roxanne dress as Batman and Robin, famously camped up on TV in the 1960s).

Beyond gun

The peculiar achievement of Beyond the Valley lies therefore in its capacity to strike one viewer as very obviously a lampoon and leave another uncertain, even appalled. The director and writer’s sensibilities are beautifully simpatico, particularly at the very end where Ebert serviced Meyer’s “sick sense of humour” by providing a ridiculous run-through of the characters’ fates in a plummy voiceover that points out the moral of each of their stories, underlining the vapid veneer of moralising assumed by much popular entertainment that actually appeals to base instinct. But there’s an undercurrent that keeps one mindful that Meyer really was the trash auteur where Ebert was a talented dilettante: where you can hear Ebert cackling with laughter bent over his typewriter, Meyer’s lower, debauched chuckle is also audible, as he always finds the money shot, throwing random huge-breasted starlets at the screen and going for broke with a startling moment when a woman is shot in the mouth to a rapidly edited but still spectacularly gruesome glimpse of spurting blood.


Meyer was definitely a director well-schooled in the perverted arts, but he also had a unique, sinuous grasp on the shifting tides of his public, sneaking observations and provocations with strange and disorienting punch into his sex farces. Ebert approached the affair as a mocking pastiche of everything he found silly in popular entertainment and our receptivity to them; for Meyer carnal forces lay deeper, less separable from more proper forms of entertainment, eating away at surface stabilities. A hint of meta self-satire is introduced as Meyer casts his then-wife William as the man-eating porn star (Meyer would close the circle with Ultra-Vixens, turning his own directing into part of the film) who, like Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), inverts sexist prerogatives as an aggressively Amazonian libertine who humiliates Harris for his inability to perform. One of Meyer’s most sublime cinematic gags comes when Ashley first seduces Harris, enticing him into the back seat of her luxury car after Harris says he’s never made love in a Rolls-Royce and inspiring her orgasmic reverie, intercut with shots of gleaming hood ornaments: “There’s nothing like a Rolls – not even a Bentley! – Bentley! – Bentley!” Conspicuous consumption indeed, in a scene that beautifully condenses both Meyer’s contemplation of the relationship of sex and money in American society and his own love of the jump cut with sexual technique. The swanky photography by Fred Koenekamp buries the fairly low budget with gloriously overheated hues and worshipful studies of flesh, particularly in a brilliant late montage the depicts Z-Man’s fateful last bacchanal where he, Lance, Casey, and Roxanne take drugs and spiral into ecstatic tactile passion, bathed in sensual hues of green, blue, and red, in a riotous succession of off-kilter angles, geometric figure studies, and jammed-tight close-ups, orgiastic indulgence about to transmute into onanistic rampage.


Where Faster, Pussycat! had diagnosed repression and obsessive, degenerative machismo as secretly crippling atomic-age America and predicting an age of Amazonian superwomen rising out of its ashes, Meyer here, with Ebert’s help, reconnoiters the fallout of the breakdown he predicted. Norms collapsed, generations split, genders melted into a primordial chaos, and alternative and mainstream cultures each sought to exploit the other—late ’60s hip culture crashing headlong into haute capitalist power games. Both men readily admitted they knew little about the counterculture, but that didn’t matter: in fact, it became their secret strength. “Come on, man. I doubt if you’d recognise a hippie,” Kelly jabs at Porter: “I’m a capitalist, baby. I work for my living, not suck off somebody else.” If there’s a “serious’ aspect to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s in its evocation of a very specific moment in popular culture where social and sexual givens were cracking open: Meyer and Ebert give us an upwardly mobile, seriously conceived black couple and an ardent lesbian pairing, amidst the already familiar squares versus cool kids drama that pits Kelly against Hall, an uptight prig who upbraids the young hipsters around Z-Man and attacks Kelly with special viciousness in his efforts to send her packing before Susan endows her with the money he hopes to bilk. But unlike the many attempts to capture the counterculture zeitgeist in films before it, Beyond the Valley has already moved into a vantage of intense irony regarding that schism. It’s clear in retrospect that Ebert and Meyer recognised that youth revolution had already become theatre, and that the Me Decade was about to begin, presaged by Z-Man’s monstrous formlessness.


The open-minded aspect of the moment was still celebrated and perhaps indeed furthered by this film’s boldness. But it’s quite obvious that the clash between the candy-coloured hippies represented by Kelly and the effete, venal establishment embodied by Porter has already become a cartoonish trope as corny as anything in the soap operas the filmmakers repeatedly reference, fitting in perfectly with the film’s overall R-rated proto-Scooby Doo aesthetic. This is not to say the film is cynical about liberation, but it does have a wryly observant take on some aspects of it: the tendency of modern fashion toward androgynous skinniness is diagnosed in an exchange between Susan and one of her gay designers who keeps complaining about a model’s capacious bust, to which Susan retorts that “you must reconcile yourself to the fact that Cynthia is not a boy.” (If boob-happy Meyer was bound to find anything objectionable in contemporary gender revisions, that was it.) Still, the transposition of a fairly familiar brain-vs.-body romantic choice onto a black woman, who is caught between Randy, who posits himself as a sensitive warrior-poet but is actually a lunatic macho, and the smoother aspirational charm of Emerson, whose path to success is slower and more exacting, captures the “which way now?” question hanging over the post-civil rights era in the African-American community more incisively than many more earnest mainstream takes on the matter. More problematic is the approach to Casey and Roxanne’s affair, which offers up some canards about lesbians—Casey is weepily misanthropic whilst Roxanne is manipulative—but is essentially generous, if only because, in a note that pays off with a gloriously shameless make-out scene that affirms the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure but also critiques it again through excess, Meyer’s affectionately rubbernecking way of saying that liberation is a win/win situation, folks.


By this time, Meyer has given us “Stranger in Paradise” as a musical cue when Z-Man grabs Lance’s cock. The film’s last phase explodes with visions of disintegrating reality and pansexuality segueing into body-in-pieces Freudian fantasy, complete with distraught Z-Man asserting phallocratic power over Roxanne by jamming a gun in her mouth and blowing her brains out, and hacking off the head of Lance, reducing him to a purer lust object. Thus, Z-man brings to a consummating explosion the breakdown of forms into constituent bloody pieces. He also shoots Casey and stabs to death his household servant Otto (Henry Rowland), who’s actually Nazi bigwig Martin Boorman, a weird recurring trope in Meyer and Ebert’s collaborations: in Ultra-Vixens it’s Hitler himself spending his declining years finding fulfilment in erotic dalliance in the American Midwest. The readiness of the rest of the band and their now settled partners to leap to Casey’s rescue, albeit too late, is itself hilarious, as Harris saves the day by crashing into Z-Man with his wheelchair and thereby regaining his ability to walk.


The whole show concludes with a triple wedding for Harris and Kelly, Petronella and Emerson, and Susan and Baxter, whilst Porter watches from outside, ruined by his machinations, the final gloating satire on the moral neatness of melodrama but also linking the story back to Shakespearean pastoral, from which this mode of storytelling draws much of its spirit. If Z-Man’s rampage is surprisingly potent, this scene, and the exposition of the narrator giving us the lowdown on the meaning of it all, concludes the film again on a note of giddy, laugh-yourself-sick excess. But it’s hard not to notice that with Casey and Roxanne sacrificed as victims to Moloch’s twisted breeding with Pan embodied in Z-Man and the remaining couples joined in wedded bliss, the party is surely over. All that’s left after dissolution is reconstitution: reenter the squares, stage right.

11th 11 - 2012 | 7 comments »

Apocalypse Now (1979; Redux, 2000)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Francis Ford Coppola

By Roderick Heath

With its legendarily torturous production, including a typhoon and a heart attack suffered by its leading man, and its thematic and aesthetic challenges, Apocalypse Now looked doomed to be a grand folly and the death-knell of ’70s auteurist ambition in Hollywood. Instead, Heaven’s Gate (1981) would be labeled the folly, whilst Apocalypse Now became the capstone for Francis Ford Coppola’s astonishing run of creativity in the decade, a careening outburst of artistic intensity that captured the Palme d’Or at Cannes and became a surprisingly popular, if also intensely divisive, film experience. Few mainstream films of any era have tried to stretch the form of cinema as much as Coppola’s Vietnam War epic. Coppola’s famous statement of creative hubris at the Cannes press conference in which he described the production as reproducing the nature of the war itself, only added to the mystique of the work and the strange, otherworldly power it radiated of being at once a film about feverish excess and obsession, and the product of these passions. Coppola later returned to the work and reedited it into the “Redux” version, adding back scenes that had bitten the cutting room floor over concern that the original epic concept could not be sold to mass audiences. The recut made the film, already a great but slightly inscrutable work, even better, and indeed lifted it into a truly epic realm with works like Seven Samurai (1954) and Andrei Rublev (1969) as a vista of human experience in extremis.

The inspired notion of transposing Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s epochal 1899 study of colonial degeneration, onto the Vietnam War, courted overt parallels between two different eras and versions of First World sin. Conrad’s tale had dazzled critics for decades with its portrait of psychocultural collapse in the face of primal forces and unchecked exploitation, but earned the enmity of some postcolonial voices, like Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who felt that the novella perpetuated some of the worst misunderstandings of the colonialist mindset. Such unease was understandable, as the essential ambiguity of the piece, the invocation of the crazed, ungovernable forces released when cultures clash and power becomes almost godlike, suggests that finally all humans are prey to the same frailty, from the tribal level to the most “sophisticated.”  Such is also true of Coppola’s adaptation, coauthored with John Milius, whose own sensibility often explored the schism between the beauty of the warrior ethic and the tragedy of martial violence. The adaptation took very loose inspiration from some real-life figures who attempted to form mountain tribes or “Montagnards” into fighting forces, and synthesised them with the image of the company man gone native, Conrad’s Mister Kurtz, paragon of civilised and civilising values somehow crumbling into pagan overlord of a bastardised anticivilisation.

Apocalypse Now, whilst offering a sustained and impressive catalogue and critique of the insanities of the specific war it dealt with, nonetheless stands most essentially as a psychologised, stylised, oneiric study of the divide between humanity at its best and basest instincts. Commencing with an Ouroborous-like moment where central antihero Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) recalls the thunder and carnage of jungle warfare as a dream of apocalypse, underscored by the sturm und drang of The Doors’ oedipal classic “The End,” the film surges forth in a state of woozy, shell-shocked, freaked-out fever dream. The film’s weird and expressive texture gains its inspiration and force from the disconnected mindset of soldiers on the ground, caught between a world of super-technology and the pleasures and comforts of modern “civilisation,” and the primordial savagery, shock, joy, and delirium of war, faced with the temptation to become lost in an alternative reality. Such an alternative zone of perception might be found either through drugs, or complete entrance into a semi-hypnotic state of dissociation. Both, indeed, temper the reality seen throughout Apocalypse Now, as the war provides sights as mind-jarringly weird as cattle being hoisted by helicopters above smoking battlegrounds and surfers trying to dodge explosions at they skip waves. The film’s structure obeys an essential geographical reality—it’s a “river movie” in the same way Easy Rider (1969) is a “road movie”—that also maps an interior, metaphysical, experiential journey backwards through states of consciousness and history.

Apocalypse Now proved at once the apotheosis of the era in which Coppola seemingly could do no wrong, and the end of it. Coppola’s rise from a wunderkind at the edges of Hollywood had begun under the wing of Roger Corman, whose name is checked in Apocalypse Now as a leader giving the hero the order to adventure into the unknown. Coppola attempted, like Corman but with a far different set of ambitions, to become a film industry unto himself. His rise had seen him move through multiple guises of cinematic genre, from brute horror (Dementia 13, 1963) to Richard Lesteresque hipster satire (You’re A Big Boy Now, 1967), offbeat twists on cute big studio properties (Finian’s Rainbow, 1968), and soulful proto-indie drama (The Rain People, 1969). His films were marked by great technical competence, one reason he blazed a trail that other Movie Brats followed, but also a growing fixation with singular characters engaging in odysseys of discovery that rarely have a certain, or positive, ends in sight, and a sense of expressive largesse that could make the smallest subject seem epic. His triumph with The Godfather (1972) and its sequel saw him elevate pulp fiction to the level of operatic tragedy simply by taking it far more seriously than anyone expected, wringing every moment for gravitas and substance, and sustaining a totality of mood that enfolded the audience. His low-key, semi-experimental thriller The Conversation (1974) extended his willingness to take formal risks, seeking new textures and methods in narrative cinema whilst also extending the semi-political studies of The Godfather films into a more interior style of storytelling to match the enquiries he had made in that direction with The Rain People. Willard, like Shirley Knight’s benumbed housewife in the latter film, cavorts in hotel rooms, stripping naked and spiralling in Promethean crisis. Whereas The Conversation is cool and bleakly paranoid, Apocalypse Now is overheated and delirious, but both revolve around the way their lead characters perceive the world around them. Like Michael Corleone, the monstrous Kurtz looks upon his works, achieved at first for resolute and honourable motives, and trembles in utmost horror.

For a film that is as famous, oft-quoted, excerpted, and satirised as Apocalypse Now, it’s often been the subject of a certain wood-for-the-trees cluelessness about its actual achievement, thanks to the iconic thrill of moments like the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter raid that threaten to prove Truffaut’s rule about the difficulty of making antiwar movies. But one of Coppola’s supreme achievements was to succeed in transmuting the electric, still-raw experience of the war, rooted in the ’70s in the realm of polemic, social and moral fallout, and brute fact, into an argot of hallucinogenic expressionism. With its teeming visual textures, constantly littered with sensuous dissolves, dreamy double-exposures, flowing tracking shots, and layer upon layer of image, it’s one of the few modern films to take up the mantle of great silent Expressionists like F. W. Murnau and Paul Leni, in attempting to render the cinematic space as a psychological canvas. Willard’s mission to seek out Kurtz is prefaced by glimpses of the emotionally gutted man in the floating, lunatic time he spends awaiting an assignment, having run from the high tension of suburbia back to that of war, drinking liquor like water in the desert, dancing in drunken gyrations, and slicing his hand open when combating shadow enemies. Coppola’s dynamic excursions in montage throughout the film are bookended by two mirrored examples, scored to the breakdown phases of “The End” where private distress and butchery are correlated in a process of ritual catharsis.

Willard’s call to action comes from contemplative General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) and his doughy, unctuous underlings, men who seem to embody the cool distance between object and enterprise in the war, playing tapes of Kurtz’s eerie, disembodied, shamanistic speeches broadcast from the edge of nothingness, passing around shrimp that sits dead on the plate like alien harbingers (“…You’ll never have to prove your courage in any other way.”) whilst the coded statements and charged looks of the men communicate the profound and forbidden necessity of the mission. The General’s musings on the battle that Kurtz has lost are at once facetious and genuinely prognosticative, as if suggesting that the truth is not hard to find, but experiencing it is an entirely different animal.

Willard’s assignment to “terminate the Colonel’s command,” the nicely euphemistic way of saying kill him before he embarrasses us, takes him through a landscape of carnage and human wreckage, commencing with an exemplar of cavalier bravado Lt. Kilgore (Robert Duvall). A Custeresque leader of the Air Cavalry, Kilgore leads attacks with Wagner blaring from loudspeakers on his attack choppers, and more terrifyingly, encourages his soldiers to regard war as a distraction from, and another part of, one big, long beach party. Willard wonders why Kurtz, who fights this same way, is such a big deal, but the differences emerge sharply. Kurtz is described as a warrior-poet in the classic sense, but it’s Kilgore who introduces the idea with his famous “napalm in the morning” speech, celebrating the victorious associations of the scent of that flesh-roasting alchemy like a samurai writing poems to the beauty of cherry blossoms before combat. But Kilgore, with his bantam cock strut and frat boy worldview, embodies a macho, showy, almost caricatured ideal of a specifically American soldier, decrying his enemy as “fucking savages” for using guerrilla tactics against his indiscriminately destructive helicopters. Kilgore’s bizarre swings of militarist passion encompass brutality and sentimentalism, his mannerisms seemingly collected from a life of watching John Wayne movies, but filtered through a very real vocation for war. He’s the kind who tosses around cards to tell his enemy who killed their friends before giving a drink to a wounded VC because “any man who’s brave enough to fight can drink from my canteen any day,” seeing no discrepancy in such an attitude, because for him war is a kind of market of awe and power. He can be distracted instantly, however, by the presence of an admired figure like Lance Murdock (Sam Bottoms): fulfilling the necessary mission of getting Willard barely stirs Kilgore, but the hope of giving Lance a chance to surf a great swell has him fire up the engines of his ships. Kilgore wields the schizoid nature of modern war, whereas Kurtz is its victim.

The hilarious victory, part prank, partly moral statement, that Willard wins for the boat crew by stealing Kilgore’s surfboard seals an initial camaraderie that dissolves slowly, but definitely in the face of the ugly nature of Willard’s mission and the peculiar trail they follow. The crew of the boat manage as a cast of characters to tread a fine line between symbolic function and eccentric gallery of types: the sturdy, pragmatic skipper Chief Philips (Albert Hall), nervy but artful former New Orleans cook Jay “Chef” Hicks (Frederick Forrest), innocently brutal young gunner Tyrone “Clean” Miller (Laurence Fishburne), and wave-dancer Lance, all of whom stand at last at great remove from Willard, who operates throughout the film on a level of intensity that can seem at once soulless and zenlike. His desolate, yet curious, even philosophical vision was strengthened with great effect on the film via former war correspondent Michael Herr’s indelible voiceover, charged with an anthropological affection for specific Vietnam War jargon whilst also accessing the often enigmatic Willard’s interior meditations on the nature of his mission. Kurtz evolves in his mind from mere rogue lunatic to a creature of monstrous importance, his fall from a man “groomed for one of the top jobs in the Corporation” to a ranting demigod. For Willard, Kurtz becomes more than a target, or even a curiosity: he becomes the emblem and embodiment of the broken nature of the age and king of the dead zone Willard inhabits. The schism between the air-conditioned world of modern civilisation and the brute charnel house of Kurtz’s compound has more than miles of jungle and warfare separating them: it’s a gap of time, of learning, of art, of culture, of the refinement of the human soul, all reversed and left broken into inchoate fragments where once they linked, synthesised, and provided form in the face of chaos.

The boat’s journey maps the nature of the conflict like stations of the cross. The surreal USO show sees Playboy playmates gyrating to please the young and desperately horny soldiers whilst dressed up in a mockery of America’s historical wars—cavalry, cowboys, and Indians transformed into erotic tease—whilst the young men are worked up to a pitch of excitement so great some finish up dangling from the helicopter trying to snatch the lovelies away again. This moment evokes the inevitable conclusion of the war in images of helicopters ferrying out refugees from the fall of Saigon, played out here in anticipation as tragicomic burlesque show. The violently surreal disparity between this situation and the other world, the “real” world of home, is hinted again, whilst exploitation of young men and young women is presented in a double bind. Willard’s lesson gleaned about the nature of the war, the realisation that the enemy has no such illusions, no other home, no other reality (“His idea of great R’n’R was some cold rice and a little rat meat.”) is one that echoes through to Kurtz’s prescriptions for a war that should be fought purely by dedicated, amoral creatures facing such a determined enemy with so little to lose. Later, when the crew of the boat re-encounter the playmates, Willard is able to swap petrol for sex, an act of veritable prostitution that turns nonetheless into an islet of clumsy, but eager carnality and quicksilver emotions. The gorgeous young women and their soldier-johns at first graze off each other rather than meet. Chef tries to mould Miss May (Colleen Camp) into the simulacrum of her poster whilst she reminisces about her days as a birdkeeper in a zoo. The Playmate of the Year (Cynthia Wood) rambles anxiously about her exploitation whilst the increasingly spacey Lance paints her into an otherworldly idol.

Coppola implicates himself in the weirdness by providing a glimpse of himself as a TV director, anxiously trying to capture reality unmarred by awareness of the camera. The sense of the war as something powered by a deracinated, incoherent objective is suggested repeatedly and finally stated outright by Hubert de Marais (Christian Marquand), the patriarch of a lost French plantation still clinging by its fingernails to its piece of this good earth: “You Americans fight for the biggest nothing in history,” he says, as if to suggest that no one in the end really fights wars for politics, but for essentially personal desires, gains, or fears that find expression in political ideas, basic drives that are lacking for the characters seen throughout the film. Choices for coping with this lack run the gamut of stark survivalist integrity, glaze-eyed warrior trances, rigorous professionalism, rampant enjoyment of destruction for its own sake, and psychic disintegration. The Chief’s efforts to hold to the professional line offer the promise of sanity and safety, and yet eventually run up against the impossibility of rationality in a war where jittery kids command machine guns and the populace teems with potential enemies. His attempt to do his “job” rather than merely pursue Willard’s mission finishes up in a grotesque slaughter of civilians in a boat, and Willard announces his variety of singularly brutal honesty by shooting a wounded survivor,an act at once jarringly heinous and yet also compassionate to all concerned. The “moral terror” of which Kurtz becomes the prophet is inseparable from the stages of the journey, as the notion that war can be waged in any kind of ethical fashion seems to become ludicrous, and total nihilism looms on the horizon: “Drop the Bomb. Exterminate them all.”

Some of Coppola’s touches of pathos, like the tape recording of Clean’s mother reading a wooden birthday message whilst his crewmates are confronted with his body, are a little heavy-handed, and can be criticised for perpetuating a certain American egotism in the face of the war’s suffering. Still, the film hardly skimps on visions of the war as a grotesque infliction, particularly early on as civilians are evacuated in landing craft  that close up like monsters and the land is pillaged. Part of the thesis here is that the reasons the opposing sides fought were completely different, and moreover that war in the world is merely an extension of war within the self. The essential Sisyphean nature of the struggle is clearly invoked by the symbol of a bridge that is constructed each night and smashed each day, glimpsed through the LSD-hued viewpoint of Lance as he and Willard stalk the battle zone where terrified, hollow-eyed mostly black GIs like the Chief and Clean suffer an injustice within an injustice. Ghostly armies lurk throughout Apocalypse Now, including Kurtz’s eerie band of white-painted guerrillas and the force defending De Marais’ remote plantation seeming to resolve out of the fog like a spectral band guarding the memory of the dead of Dien Bien Phu. It is these anachronistic warriors to whom Phillips entrusts Clean’s body as icon of the war’s dead, and they enact the proper funeral service with backwoods rigour.

The crew’s stay at the plantation swiftly segues into a quorum on history blended with very French disputations, but the essential motive of the planters is much the same as that of the Corleones: the desire to hold family together and defend hard-won turf, family integrity being one of Coppola’s constant absolutes. Willard remains far outside of it all, whilst locked in a zone of charged awareness with the ethereal widow of one of De Marais’ family, Roxanne Sarrault (Aurore Clément), who offers him the balms of opium and sexual contact as she had once given them to her husband. A moment of ethereal eroticism gives Willard a chance to reconnect with one half of himself seemingly annihilated by war, and the liminal limits of the moment are peeled back to find a chain of people inhabiting the same roles back into primordial time. The felicity of the Redux cut in adding feminine and erotic dimensions to the tale helped flesh out the film’s themes and also its almost numbing sensuousness: the physicality of Apocalypse Now, captured throughout by Vittorio Storaro’s masterly photography and aided by Walter Murch’s editing and richly compiled soundscapes, keeps the spiritual and philosophical excursions constantly rooted in the immediate land of blood, mud, flies, fire, jungle heat, sodden skin. The metaphysical is an extension of the physical. Willard’s face, perpetually beaded with sweat and with eyes like impact craters where a sense of reality once was, dominates many a frame of the film.

Conrad’s Marlowe, Willard’s analogue in the novella and a recurring voice of experience in Conrad’s works, was a peculiarly thoughtful, but also pragmatic working man; Willard, on the other hand, is just as thoughtful, but his soul is as much of a battleground as Kurtz’s, a fact that makes him the potential inheritor of Kurtz’s legacy. Willard is an unusual film protagonist considering that there are aspects of him that remain unknowable to the audience; the usual role of narrator-mediator as a way for audiences to get into the drama is passed onto the supporting characters. Willard’s calamitous soul is glimpsed at the outset as torn loose from time and place, reducing him to a lump of pure, raw feeling before he switches back into the clarity of his warrior mode. His previous missions, the men he knows he’s killed, haunt him, and the causes of his divorce and return to Vietnam seem rooted in a horrified fascination, an inability to escape the nagging hint of something he needs to confront fully, a need that Kurtz finally fulfils. Sheen’s less showy, often overlooked performance is a thing of hypnotic beauty, and likewise Hall’s emotional immediacy as Phillips is a quiet coup.

Equally memorable is the kinetic, late appearance by Dennis Hopper as a photojournalist trapped in Kurtz’s compound, an emissary of both mass media and countercultural impulses, and embodying every exposed nerve of both. Hopper’s own spiral into hophead exile after The Last Movie (1971) was perhaps one Coppola wanted to channel, and certainly no one embodied the crack-up of ’60s idealism more than the director of Easy Rider. His character stands as a kind of priest/court jester for the titanic Kurtz, rambling with incoherent urgency in his efforts to communicate both Kurtz’s greatness and his depravity, as if he’s found a kind of guru who scares the shit out of him. Not coincidentally, the Manson murders are invoked during the voyage upriver as Kurtz’s ignoble stateside avatar. In finally meeting Kurtz, Willard is ritually washed by his followers, who include Colby (Scott Glenn), another soldier sent on the same mission but seduced into the mesmerised fold, and presented as a trussed prisoner whom Kurtz regales with mysterious anecdotes: his description of having once sailed down a river past a place where “heaven fell to the earth in the form of gardenias” suggests that somewhere is a natural paradise to mirror this stygian abode. Kurtz is glimpsed mostly as a saurian beast in the shadows, running a hand over his bald head like a tarantula crawling on a melon, a creature of strange discursions and secret intentions that may well have proven to be so much quackery.

In one of Brando’s most compelling pieces of acting, Kurtz finally reveals one source of his madness—seeing a pile of children’s arms, inoculated against smallpox, hacked off by Vietcong extremists as a rejection of all imposed, external, modern control, an act of heinous brutality that nonetheless possesses a stringent logic. Coppola and Milius seem to have sensed that the wars of the modern world and psyche would be as much about deciding a frame for reality, and rejecting what does not fit into that frame, as they are about any concrete aim: control of the narrative is everything. Kurtz assesses Willard as Willard has tried to assess him—as a fitting bringer of death and successor as messenger from the edge. He cuts off any means of escape, including murdering Chef before he can call in an air strike, and wrings out nearly the last drop of life from Willard before reviving him as a man, “not even in their fucking army anymore.” Willard’s slaughter of Kurtz, associated in fierce montage with animal sacrifice, is both a bloody and savage act and a moment of liberation that gives Willard a unique power. His killing is an act of mercy and faith, thus uniting the two halves of the soul Roxanne had seen as irrevocably split. The followers of Kurtz bow down to him as their new god-king, but Willard throws away his weapon and receives wisdom—Kurtz’s testimonies—having achieved a complete, Euclidian rebirth for rational man. He is able to lead the innocent Lance back home, and as he sails away, Lance returns from the trance he’s been submerged in. Willard’s victory over moral terror, smothered as it is in a still-pungent scent of rot with Kurtz’s final words still echoing, is nonetheless real.

25th 10 - 2012 | 7 comments »

The Fog (1980)

Director/Coscreenwriter: John Carpenter

By Roderick Heath

John Carpenter helped change the face of horror cinema with his 1978 hit Halloween. This change, as it soon proved, was not for the better, as legions of poor imitations of his stark modernist nightmare, which translated the motifs of the Italian giallo horror style into American suburban paranoia and mixed them with a radical embrace of purely figurative villainy, filed onto movie screens. Carpenter’s immediate follow-up, The Fog, sits between the singular success of Halloween and the pulpy thrills of Escape From New York (1981), which would see Carpenter work for the first time with favoured star Kurt Russell. The Fog, in spite of a poor remake in 2005, remains by comparison neglected in Carpenter’s oeuvre. It is nonetheless one of the gems of the director’s early career, at a time when it seemed he could do no wrong, and one of the finest cinematic hymns to the pure malevolent joy of telling a ghost story. Halloween explored the frisson stemming from the most sepulchral of childhood fantasies associated with the eponymous date, reinventing the Boogeyman as a blank and primal force of brutality uncontained by any earthly concern or interest. By contrast, The Fog aimed for a more traditional evocation of the mood of campfire spook tales, making this motif both its key-note and its driving logic, to the extent where it opens with a celebration of this age-old act, as children, bathed in flickering firelight, sit in wrapt attentiveness as old sea salt Mr Machen (John Houseman) narrates.

Machen holds an old fob watch out to tick away the seconds to midnight, before snapping it shut and announcing there’s time for one more story before the witching hour begins. He recounts the tale of the Elizabeth Dane, a ship that sank off the coast of the small northern California town of Antonio Bay, smashed to pieces on the rocks when fooled by a mysterious wrecker’s light, bathed in an unholy fog. Carpenter’s camera details the enthralled faces of the children Machen entertains and the aged storyteller’s own visage, before craning up over a dune to survey Antonio Bay itself in the midnight moonlight, placid and beautiful, linking the layers of storytelling involved as well as the spoken myth with the real locale. The eerie strains of a coastal fog horn blare out as well as the drone of Carpenter’s usual simple yet unnervingly perfect electronic scoring, and the story Machen has told soon proves less entertainment than warning and invocation. The Fog explores the town with its faint fringes of nocturnal life, cleaners, lone duty policemen, drinkers. Father Patrick Malone (Hal Holbrook), after seeing off the local church’s odd-job man (Carpenter) who wants to be paid at an inconvenient moment, is shocked when a block seems to spontaneously fall out of the wall in his office. This reveals a hidden nook where Malone discovers his own grandfather’s old journal, containing a menacing missive: “Midnight ‘til one belongs to the dead – good lord help us.”

True to this word, around the town, strange phenomena begin occurring: tremors shake supermarket shelves, gas pumps fall from their cradles, telephones ring en masse, car alarms suddenly erupt in deafening din, and household furniture moves about by itself. Driving into town, Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) picks up a hitchhiker on a dark and lonely stretch of road, Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis), and his rapport with her is both interrupted and deepened as the windscreen is suddenly shattered by the same unseen force. This is all accounted with nerveless, intimate detail by Carpenter, relying on the intense power of stillness and quiet, infused and interrupted by mysterious powers readying to shatter the illusion of normalcy, as the past returns quite literally to haunt Antonio Bay.

Ironically, much of The Fog’s first 20 minutes had be to be hastily reshot and reassembled with the aid of Carpenter’s key collaborators Debra Hill and Dean Cundey, as the film Carpenter had initially envisioned was too short and enigmatic, and also out of date, as the craze Halloween had started for amassing body counts and brutal violence far outpaced its creator. Yet the result adds up to a perfect encapsulation of Carpenter’s feel for the fundamental dynamic and necessary rhythm of the horror genre, and his reliance on visual storytelling as something that does not always require visceral effect to build intense engagement. Already in 1980 this faith in mood, composition, coherence, and a carefully calibrated sense of unfolding story tethered to a sense of locale and mindset, was starting to look outmoded in genre cinema, and indeed whilst today Carpenter’s best work is considered iconic in nostalgia as exemplary old-school cinema, in its original context Carpenter’s work was staked in an ethic of functional intelligence with roots in an older, vanishing filmic sensibility. The Fog was, then, an important crossroads not merely for Carpenter himself, but for the genre, as a kiss goodbye to a classical brand of horror.

The events that plague Antonio Bay as midnight rolls around, redolent of some invisible force playing havoc with the trappings of modern civility (anticipating Carpenter’s much more overt war on sense-severing technology in They Live, 1988, and the finale of Escape From LA, 1997) prove to be a mere prologue to a far more vivid resurgence of supernatural forces, as three fishermen, Dick Baxter (James Canning), Al Williams (John Goff), and Tommy Wallace (George “Buck” Flower), who have stayed out to get drunk, have their boat overtaken by a strange fog bank moving against the wind, and become witness to a ghostly sailing ship sliding past their vessel. Dark, gnarled figures appear on the deck and slaughter the trio, whilst their boat drifts on in the curling mist. Although more visibly violent, this sequence is squarely in a genre tradition that favours intense atmosphere, and vivid contrasts of modernity and the atavistic, wraith-like forms of dead men and ghost ships. It’s offered with a refusal to smirk at the hoariness, only allowing a momentary note of dry humour to slip by (“She’s crazy, there’s no fog bank out there…Hey, there’s a fog bank out there!”) before the weirdness starts. Carpenter’s editing keeps what is seen partly elusive, almost cryptic, and resolves in a moment of pure, phobic nightmarishness, as Baxter is left alone on the dark bridge, panicking as he reports mysterious objects on the radar, thinking the dripping, staggering zombie wielding a sharp tool behind him is one of his friends. One of the same gruesome figures seems to come knocking at Nick’s door, as he and Elizabeth recline in post-coital calm, only to vanish when Nick opens the door exactly at the stroke of 1 a.m., and the forces of darkness retreat into the sea again.

The Fog maintains Halloween’s less-is-more ethos whilst expanding its scope far wider, as it plays out with a similar Greek drama-like limitation to slightly more than a 24-hour period. The previous film reduced its killer to the status of purified, blank symbol of fear and encouraged the audience, like some other recent horror hits like The Exorcist (1973), to give themselves up to the irrational without appeal to psychological or social realities. The Fog on the other hand presents its wraiths as the spirit of old wrongs returning to extract a peculiar, fearsome brand of justice from all who have profited from those crimes. This “rotting body politic” motif recurs constantly in Carpenter’s best work, commencing in the long-achieved breakdown of the professional astronauts in Dark Star (1974) and recurring in Assault in Precinct 13 (1976) and many films after The Fog. It accords with a thematic strand that was popular more in ‘70s horror fiction, including often bobbing up in Stephen King’s works, in keeping with a post-‘60s exploitation of anxieties about suppressed and repressed aspects of history and social life.

Carpenter and Hill’s screenplay joins this anxiety to another theme which became attractive after Jaws (1975) and Nashville (1975), exploiting American bicentennial angst, where communal celebrations become moments for eruptions of those repressed forces, but here given an explicit basis in the crimes of that community: “We’re honouring murderers,” Malone, the devolved remnant of that tradition, murmurs. The founding and growth of Antonio Bay is linked, as Malone discovers through his grandfather’s diary, to a murderous crime in which the settlers who picked out the bay for a home, horrified by the thought of a leper colony being founded a short distance away, conspired to accept the money paid to them by the colony’s financier Blake, and then caused the wreck of the ship, with nature itself seeming to aid the calamity. As the hundredth anniversary of this crime is nigh, however, the fog that seemed to aid the wreckers now returns as a cloak for the emerging dead, who set out to kill the descendants of the conspirators and anyone else who gets in their way.

Carpenter’s faith in pure storytelling is captured in the relish of the depiction of it in Machen’s opening speech, and of course the character’s name evokes Arthur Machen, the Welsh author who wrote and collected ghost stories, some of which helped feed the Halloween mythos. And yet a modernist’s vibrant restraint is constantly in evidence throughout The Fog, refined to a rigorous twinning of form and function. The mid-section of The Fog, between the two nights of ghostly vengeance, entwines off-hand characterisation with exposition. Solitary radio host Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) takes over from Machen as a “narrator”, as her vigil from the lighthouse, where her radio station broadcasts from, makes her the one person who can tie together the disparate threads of action, and guide them with a director’s viewpoint. Another layer of storytelling opens in the inter-cutting between Malone reading his grandfather’s diary, and Nick recounting a sea story of his father’s that relates to the unfolding drama.

But the film never allows meta-narrative impulses to impede its essential classicism. The personality of the film is signalled by the number of character names given to Carpenter’s collaborators current and former. Carpenter’s fondness for large casts with a Hawksian interactive affinity, and a notable diffusion of heroic status over several characters, hinted at in his earlier movies, comes more fully into focus here as The Fog divides it attention between multiple character threads of interest that eventually collide, and the story converges into one of the siege situations Carpenter has been so fond of. Stevie’s drama and Nick and Elizabeth’s hunt for the source of the mystery connects with Malone’s uncovering of the grim truth whilst Al Williams’ wife Kathy (Janet Leigh) attempts to organise the memorial to the lie, with the aid of her sarcastic assistant Sandy Fadel (Nancy Loomis). It was entirely apt that after Halloween’s several overt references to Psycho (1960), including casting Leigh’s daughter, that Marion Crane herself appeared in the follow-up, and Leigh gives a deft seriocomic performance as a hyperactive booster plunged into a survival struggle, exchanging sundry sarcastic barbs with Sandy (“You’re the only person I know who can make ‘yes ma’am’ sound like ‘screw you!’” “Yes ma’am.”) as a wry commentary on friction between old-fashioned pluck and new-age indolence.

Carpenter’s work with cinematographer Cundey, which had helped make Halloween the film it is, and creating a near-legendary pattern for the use of the wide Panavision screen, is here a stream of restrained beauty and perfectly composed tensions, capturing crisply the alternately eerie and picturesque shores of the northern California setting, skirting Bodega Bay, the setting of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), which is mentioned, with Carpenter getting to pay nods to the master in his uneasily becalmed shots Barbeau driving across the landscape. As in the Hitchcock film the seemingly limitless, empty expanse of the ocean becomes the place where a nameless threat gathers, whilst Carpenter carefully and insinuatingly suggests that present evil is only ever the hangover of past evil, refusing to be laid to rest, and he offers glimpses, sometimes direct but often cunningly supple and elusive, of the irrational nature of the threat, as objects transmute and the seemingly hard contours of reality melt away in the numinous mist.

As is often the case in Carpenter’s work, it’s the specificity of the setting and the characterisations that infuses the drama with a rare kind of life, as Carpenter captures the feel of the small town exactingly, catching both the fine details of a blue-collar, workaday place, and also some of its contradictions, like Nick’s status as a working class bohemian, who connects with rich girl Elizabeth because like her, he has no idea what to do in his life. Although Carpenter was about to become associated with Russell, Atkins, who would also star in the ill-fated but interesting Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983), was a perfect actor for the director’s oeuvre with his seemingly plebeian charisma and looks, heavy-set and vividly masculine in the least traditionally Hollywood fashion. He’s terrific as the competent but thoughtful, slightly haunted-seeming Nick, who’s intelligent and imaginative but used to the risky, subtly dangerous world of the fishing fleet of Antonio Bay.

By contrast, Stevie is a big city refugee, who surveys the ocean and murmurs, “Nothing but water, Stevie. But it sure beats Chicago.” In her seaside house Carpenter surveys, dispassionately, photos of herself, her son Andy (Ty Mitchell), and a man, presumably her husband and the boy’s father, in their former enterprises in radio, and the fact that Stevie keeps these photos in view suggests the man died rather than divorced, and perhaps therefore running from a peculiar kind of urban horror only to encounter another kind of it. Barbeau’s terrific performance is at its best as Stevie attempts to stay at her post even as she’s wracked by fear for her son who’s directly in the fog’s path, perhaps the film’s keenest moment of emotional engagement, coexisting with an interesting post-Watergate subtext, interrogating about the slippery divide between reporting on crisis and being involved in it, and to whom responsibilities ultimately belong. By the film’s end Stevie’s ivory tower is being assaulted by decaying remnants of men, emanations of a primeval Id that could stand in for every fear Stevie as a single mother has ever tried to stave off. She directs the survivors from the town to Malone’s church as a theoretical refuge, except that’s exactly where the dead killers are heading in pursuit of Malone. Curtis, by the same token, gets to leave behind her role in Halloween as the haplessly virginal yet plucky final girl in playing the game, swinging Elizabeth, whilst still playing a young woman who seems initially out of her depth but who proves finally equal to the nightmares around her.

Carpenter, like many of the other filmmakers who emerged in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and were ennobled with the general epithet “Movie Brats”, often played games with the referential nature of his excursions, never placing them in quotation marks as in the next wave of post-modern directors a la Tarantino, but trying to iron them into the texture of the film, much as his ultimately quite different but similarly rooted generational fellows Spielberg and Lucas. The Fog may in turn have influenced some other filmmakers: Michael Mann’s The Keep (1984) is in some ways a redeployment of this film’s aesthetics with a more aggressively expressionist tilt. Some of Carpenter’s concepts owe quite a bit to the little-seen 1958 British sci-fi horror flick The Trollenberg Terror (also called The Crawling Eye), from which it borrows one significant element – the smothering fog concealing the lurking evil – and a couple of signature scenes, including a corpse climbing off its deathbed and stalking a heroine, and one in which one character hears another being killed on the other end of a phone line. The former scene also sees Carpenter following in Brian De Palma’s wake of consciously remixing elements of earlier scenes from his films and letting them play out in different fashions, as a late moment from Halloween in which Curtis had the apparently dead Michael Myers rise up behind her is tweaked now as Baxter’s very dead, sea-rotted corpse picks itself up and lurches towards Elizabeth with scalpel in hand, only to trip and leave a mysterious sign that seems to be an ‘M’ scratched into the linoleum – a Fritz Lang shout-out?

This moment points forward in turn to one of the creepiest scenes in Carpenter’s up-coming remake of The Thing (1982), whilst a late scene sees Stevie mimicking the “watch the skies” speech at the end of the 1951 original; the Cold War era message of vigilance is here perverted into one of historical awareness. The second quote from The Trollenberg Terror, as Stevie tries to talk smooth-talking meteorologist Dan (Charles Cyphers) from checking out whose knocking at the door of his remote weather station, only to hear his dying gurgles as a baling hook is jammed in his neck. Much of Val Lewton’s psychological spirit is apparent throughout The Fog, particularly in Carpenter’s emphasis on brusque, eliding edits and oblique framing that constantly render the source of threat slightly out of focus and easy dismissal. The Fog is also marked out by its strong sense of a literary legacy in the form: Carpenter’s constant genre masters Nigel Kneale and H.P. Lovecraft are invoked, anticipating The Evil Dead (1981) in filching Lovecraft through the means of a malefic tome that guides the action, whilst the narrative echoes with references to Machen, M.R. James, Arthur Conan-Doyle, and Sheridan LeFanu, the formative masters of the ghost story.

At the same time, the driving force of Halloween, a solid basis in that modern campfire tale, the urban legend, which exploded in the alarmism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, is identifiable here too. This is manifest in the phobia-exploiting images of mysterious visitors wielding large vicious weapons, and in the sense of isolation around the hitchhiking Elizabeth and solitary Stevie, an intimate awareness of that isolation in a world where threat lurks. Stevie’s radio show, which plays vintage big band jazz, helps generate the intense feeling of both late-night, nostalgia-flecked warmth whilst also reinforcing the sense of isolation. One great and also slightly amusing aspect of The Fog is the unadorned simplicity and force of its suspense situations, including perhaps the absolute best ever “can’t get the car moving” nail-biter sequence, as Elizabeth struggles to get Nick’s truck moving after he’s saved Andy from the zombies, with the shuffling ghouls closing in as Elizabeth struggles to get the truck in gear. Part of the beauty of this scene is its precision of character detail under pressure: Elizabeth has obviously never driven a vehicle like the truck before, and she wrestles the gears with frantic, wheel-slapping frustration but refusing to give up and finally succeeding. The finale, which sees the main cast converge in Malone’s church, sees Carpenter at last back in the siege movie territory he loves so much, with the memorably bold visions of the zombies’ gnarled, discoloured, bandage-swathed hands shattering the stained glass windows and reaching out of the hallucinatory fog.

Carpenter’s habitually dark tendency of killing off unexpected and empathetic characters was more muted than usual here, although he doesn’t mind having the cutesy old babysitter Mrs Kobritz (Regina Waldon) fall into the zombies’ clutches. But he saves one of his darkest final blackout jokes for the very end, as it seems that evil has been satisfied by Malone’s gesture of sacrifice to the ghosts, presenting the gold stolen from them which his grandfather hid away in the form of a cross to Blake (Rob Bottin), the walking dead standing in the midst of the church unfazed by the usually sacrosanct territory in their mission. Malone’s handover of the gold sees an eruption of supernatural power, Nick snatching the priest away as Blake and his crew vanish, apparently returned to the netherworld satisfied. But later, as Malone mulls over the meaning of his survival, he’s confronted again by the ghouls, and this time Blake dispatches him with one swift, brutal blow. The message is as inescapable as it is grimly funny: the past will exact all its debts from the present eventually, and you can only buy it off so long.

15th 04 - 2012 | 8 comments »

10 (1979)

Director/Screenwriter: Blake Edwards

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Male menopause, I’m OK, you’re OK, if it feels good, do it—these are the cogent catchphrases of 1970s American pop culture that practically begged to be lampooned, even in their own time. Enter Blake Edwards. One of the most successful creators of mainstream comedies ever to work in Hollywood, Edwards’ sixth sense for spoofing the zeitgeist and his experience in genre and comedy writing for such 50s TV series as Peter Gunn and The Mickey Rooney Show helped him uncork the Pink Panther films, one the most beloved franchises in moviedom. Edwards also had an unofficial series comprising the numerous films he made starring his wife Julie Andrews, whose phenomenal voice and fresh-faced beauty had made her an easy star in such 60s movie musicals as Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Her collaborations with Edwards were meant to broaden her range and increase her opportunities to land other types of movies. Their smash hit 10 scored a cultural bulls-eye with the “do your own thing” generation that catapulted British comic actor/musician Dudley Moore and ravishingly beautiful newcomer Bo Derek to instant celebrity in the United States, while charting the fading world Andrews would prove largely unsuccessful in trying to escape.

George Webber (Moore) is a highly successful composer who, with his writing partner, gay lyricist Hugh (Robert Webber), is navigating the treacherous waters of being in his 40s. Hugh’s grasping at fading youth is manifest by keeping a young lover (Walter George Alton) whose only line of work is to make Hugh happy. Moore has been seeing Samantha Taylor (Andrews), a musical theatre star and recording artist, for several years, but can’t seem to keep his eyes off the bikini-clad women who walk the streets of his Malibu neighborhood. He especially can’t keep away from his telescope, which is forever trained on his neighbor (Don Calfa), a Hugh Hefner type whose mansion is always filled with naked women who are ready to fuck at the drop of a swizzle stick. George’s discontent overflows when he arrives at Hugh’s home for an evening work session and finds that Sam has arranged a surprise 42nd birthday party for him.

With the memory of blowing out the candles on a cake engulfed in flames fresh in his mind, he is primed for his fateful encounter with Jenny (Derek), the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. One glance from his Rolls Royce into the back seat of the limousine that is taking her to her wedding ceremony, and George is off to the races. He follows her to the church, crashes into a police car when he can’t take his eyes off her, and after receiving tickets for several violations, bangs into the church and hides in some floral arrangements behind the altar so that he can gaze upon her face. He is promptly stung on the nose by a bee. That night, caught in the heady elixir of his own obsession, he quarrels with Sam. When he fails to connect with her the following day to apologize, he runs helplessly toward the object of his desire, going so far as to allow her dentist father (James Noble) to fill six cavities just so that he can find out her honeymoon destination—Mexico—and follow her there.

The advertising tagline for 10 reads, “A temptingly tasteful comedy for adults who can count,” a clever reference to the title that would push an attractiveness rating scale to the cultural forefront. But its double-meaning is for men like George who realize the time of youthful vigor is passing. In real life, we’ve all seen men like George, for example, middle-aged Michael Douglas, who saw Catherine Zeta-Jones in full, youthful bloom in The Mask of Zorro, determined to make her his, and then did. Just like Douglas, George eventually succeeds in getting Jenny into bed, but unlike Douglas, Jenny’s reasons for being with George highlight the unbridgeable generation gap that George is wise enough not to ignore. Jenny is comfortable with her “old man” David (Sam Jones)—they’ve been living together for two years and got married to please their parents. When George saves a sleeping David from drifting out to sea on a surfboard, Jenny is happy and grateful. While David is in the hospital recovering from a sunburn, why not sleep with the cute man who saved him? As we’d say today, it’s all good.

George, though he is tempted by the example of free love set by his neighbor, doesn’t think of Jenny that way. She’s his ideal, the embodiment of the perfect 10, that is, her face and form are. Sadly for George, the world belongs to her generation now. When George sits in the hotel bar bending the ear of sympathetic bartender Don (Brian Dennehy), he makes a sarcastic joke inspired by hearing the pianist play the theme from Laura: “Each of us is the product of an era. That music is my era. . . . If you were 19, and 20 years from now, you were dancing with your wife or girlfriend you knew in high school, and you said to her, ‘Darling, they’re playing our song,’ do you know what they would be playing? ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.” For George’s generation, desire was love, and great desire led to marriage. When Jenny makes it clear that making love with him would make her happy, nothing more, it opens a chasm. He tells her he thought she was something special, to which she quickly retorts, “I am special.” Damn right, but as she defines herself. George would call her a women’s libber, but that would not offend her the way his criticism of Sam always wanting to “win like a man” offends her. The world of beautiful love songs with beautiful lyrics cannot be transferred to a beautiful face and body the way men did in his era. It is only after learning this lesson that he can let go of trying to recapture his youth by loving an actual youth, and find the life-giving romantic feelings of his own youth with Sam.

In Blake Edwards’ inimitable style, comedy and romance are mixed effortlessly, and the laughs and sighs he evokes are full-bodied. Moore’s diminutive size and elfin face put us solidly on his side as he experiences a series of mishaps that exploit the full range of his considerable physical comedy skills. For example, while watching his neighbor, he flings his telescope away in sexual frustration, only to conk himself in the head and stumble down a steep embankment. Naturally, Sam chooses that moment to try to phone him. He tries to climb the hill quickly, slipping and sliding backward and pulling at the brush while his neighbor and naked lady friend watch in amused puzzlement. Naturally, he finally reaches the phone just as Sam hangs up, much to his comic exasperation. Following his dental work, George finally manages to be around to answer one of Sam’s phone calls. Unfortunately, his mouth is so swollen and novocained up that he sounds like an incomprehensible predator from another planet. She calls the police, who find him under the influence of pain killers and brandy, riotously rubber-legged and ready to party with the naked ladies across the way. In another incident, when a mariachi band awakens him at the hotel in Mexico, the look on his dark-circled, hungover face as he bursts through the balcony curtains is gut-splittingly funny.

Moore’s dramatic chops, however, provide moments of the most aching longing. The set-piece in which Moore pours out his yearning occurs when he sits at the hotel piano and records a new composition for Hugh on a tape recorder. The Henry Mancini song that exquisitely reflects Jenny as George’s inspiration, “It’s Easy to Say” (better without the crummy lyrics), is full of George’s kind of music—beautifully melodic, painful, surging with life, triumph, and defeat—interpreted with Moore’s superb musical technique and artistry. Edwards inserts reaction shots to the music from Dennehy and Dee Wallace, who plays a lonely divorcée whose would-be tryst with George is both embarrassing to watch and as unnecessary as the reaction shots themselves. The scene provides a supreme example of a character’s inner life completely realized by his artistic expression; Edwards was very smart to write a part for Moore that would take advantage of his perfection as a musician.

Many kudos to Bo Derek as well for embodying Jenny as a self-confident member of her generation. More than just being, in reality, a perfect 10, Derek’s refreshing honesty and unapologetic attitude when faced with George’s disillusionment make their bedroom scene together both sad and wise. Of course, that scene will be remembered only for her assertion that Ravel’s Boléro is the best music in the world to fuck to, and I lament that her performance in this pivotal scene got lost in the sniggering and rush to the record store.

The weakest link in 10 is Julie Andrews. She and Edwards thought her innocent image was to blame for the failure of many of her films and performances, resulting in the ill-considered image buster S.O.B. (1981). In fact, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that Julie Andrews just isn’t a very good actress. She doesn’t get below the surface of Sam, merely spouts the lines that signal she’s an older woman who won’t put up with George’s infantile exploits. Sam seems completely oblivious to the undercurrents of George’s terror of growing old, and therefore, their connection never seemed real to me. At one point, she takes a frustrating call from George and ends it with “Damn you, George.” She might as well have said “I need a quart of milk” for all the emotion she puts into it. Thankfully, she is not the center of the film’s action and provides little more than some quick-edit blackouts to hype the comedy. Singing the insipid lyrics written for the Mancini songs by Carol Bayer Sager and Robert Wells does not help her cause either.

A raft of decent supporting performances, led by Dennehy and Max Showalter as the preacher/songwriting hobbyist who married Jenny and David, make 10 a well-fleshed rom com. Dudley Moore’s understanding portrayal of a midlife male makes 10 a treasure.

16th 03 - 2012 | 13 comments »

Superman (1978)

Director: Richard Donner

By Roderick Heath

Love them, hate them, or prefer Jane Austen movies as your cup of escapism, the superhero tale has evolved from ephemeral, junky, adolescent power fantasy into the major mode for expressing distillations of the mythic sensibility in modern Western pop culture. Perhaps this is due as much to a dearth of alternative sources as to the evolution of postmodern literary theory and the maturation of geek culture. Since we’ve mostly lost what were once the common resources of classical mythology, and where it was once a great communal act to sit down and listen to stories of Achilles or Roland or Beowulf or Heracles, today, tales of Spider-Man and Batman and X-Men bring us in for that shared love of figures who can resist the limits of mortality and find the larger-than-life quality in everyday moral quandaries. So comic book adaptations and superhero flicks are everywhere these days, to the partly justified exasperation of many, the steady employment of large special-effects teams, and the generally consistent ring of cash registers. With most of them, it’s not hard to admit that few really bear the weight of such elevated references. Even the best ones, like Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), Bryan Singer’s X-Men 2 (2003), and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2003), lack in some degree the internal integrity and willingness to stretch their generic and fiscal reasons for being to become truly great fantastic cinema.

For me, still standing high above the pack of superhero movies is Richard Donner’s 1978 film of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s fabled, definitive superhero. Donner, a director who had served a long apprenticeship in television and who debuted in films with the tacky war movie Submarine X-1 (1968) and weird jailbait romance Twinky (1970), emerged most properly with the hysterical, stylish, deliciously pulpy 1976 horror movie The Omen, where Donner’s peculiar capacity to tap, through dynamic staging and care of craftsmanship, the passionate force of even the trashiest material, proved the saving grace. Donner showed in the next quarter-century that he could invest a lot of apparently factotum Hollywood product with integrity by his storytelling and cinematic shaping: his was not a fan’s indulgent touch, but that of a professional willing to invest anything with rigour, even if finally too many Lethal Weapon movies and other third-rate action flicks fill up the latter part of his oeuvre. Superman was also certainly the product of many cooks, and it displays the divergent impulses and creative touches that went into it, with a script initially penned by ’70s epic specialist Mario Puzo but refurbished by other hands, including seasoned writing team David Newman and Robert Benton and Newman’s wife Leslie, and Tom Mankiewicz, who though uncredited, provided, so Donner testified, most of the final screenplay. For the most part these many influences keep each other in check and even work to facilitate the film’s richness, and Donner’s overall instinctive solidity resists fragmenting under pressure.

The idea of a superhero film taking itself seriously in 1978 was a pretty wild one: comic books and superheros had been the ’60s emblems of pop art and camp, evinced by movies like Barbarella (1967) and the Batman TV series. But the success of Star Wars (1977) gave an impetus to the notion that there was something larger and deeper—emotionally, if not intellectually—behind the old pulp pantheon. So Donner, in taking command of the colossal budget and all-star cast handed to him by the cantankerous, abrasive, but certainly effective father and son producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, fashioned Superman not simply into a dynamic adventure yarn, but as an honest-to-god mythopoeic saga of the birth and maturation of a demigod that Homer would have understood.

Superman is also a calculated hymn to the pleasure of rediscovering half-forgotten heroes of youth and naïve fantasies long cast off, a note immediately established with the first shot, of a movie theatre’s curtains opening and a child’s voice recounting the roots of the comic book in the 1930s: the miseries of the Depression and the world of New York publishing emblemised by the Daily Planet building with its iconic globe logo, filmed in black and white. What follows is a plunge into the depths of space over which the swooping credits and John Williams’ heroic score unfurl in what might count as the longest travelling shot in movie history, resolving at last on the planet Krypton under its red sun, the sun that will soon explode and take Krypton and its people with it. The true first scene is nominally just a set-up for a sequel, but it also serves a deft thematic function, as it depicts Jor-El (Marlon Brando) trying and condemning a trio of destructive Kryptonians (Terence Stamp, Sara Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran) to a grim imprisonment in a “Phantom Zone.” Superman’s father, we see, is the embodiment of all patriarchal authority, and a crime fighter, just as his son will be. Brando was paid a ludicrously large sum of money for his few minutes of screen time, but if anyone was worth it, he was, because he fills the part with a gravitas very few actors could have wielded.

Jor-El is also a scientist, and with overtones that now seem distinctly familiar from real life, his warnings of planetary endangerment are dismissed by his fellow Kryptonian overlords (including Trevor Howard, who still hadn’t forgiven Brando for acting up whilst making 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty), who force his silence and cooperation by threats to him and his family. Jor-El, bound to remain on Krypton with his wife Lara (Susannah York), loads his infant son Kal-El into a spaceship and sends him to Earth in a dazzlingly staged sequence that sees the spaceship crack through the ceiling just as the last act of planetary disintegration starts; Krypton’s icy civilisation crumbles in a scene of apocalypse that evokes De Mille in its gusto. Donner’s reach for the unapologetically fabled fully invokes the original comic’s basis in half-digested versions of the Moses and Samson myths, and images of the infant within the capsule evoke Buddhist depictions of infant bodhisattvas absorbing all the knowledge of the world, cross-bred with imagery right out of old Amazing Stories covers.

When young Kal-El crash-lands on earth, he moves directly into a different mythology: that of a Middle America that’s vast and big-hearted and reassuring in its simplicity. Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), visions straight out of an Edward Saroyan tale, adopt the amazing youngster who crawls out of a smoking pit and immediately lifts a car over his head. Dubbed Clark, he grows into an awkward teenager (Jeff East), albeit one defined by astounding gifts he has to hide, crippling him in his attempts to communicate properly with the world around him, in other words, exactly like every teenager sees themselves. Flirting with cheerleader Lana Lang (Diane Sherry) but dismissed by the football-playing jocks he can easily best, Clark wears off his frustration by indulging his hidden brilliance alone.

It’s telling that many subsequent superhero tales, including both the comic books that followed Siegel and Shuster’s creation and the films that followed this one, are always in Superman’s thrall. Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie couldn’t help but recreate nearly note for note the scenes depicting Clark’s fateful last interaction with Jonathan, with wise, doomed father figures played by suitably august movie stars. The moment of Jonathan’s death—realising he’s having a heart attack and releasing a plaintiff “Oh no!” before collapsing—is one of the two remarkable moments of mortality that define the film, and the keenest in the genre; the subsequent scene of his funeral evokes no lesser figures of film than John Ford and George Stevens in the employment of careful contrasts of the homey little church ground and the small collective of grieving humans framed against colossal vistas. That’s the world Donner wants us to feel Superman is staked in, that world of grandiose Americana and a cinematic tradition from before that damned New Wave. He gets even cornier, and even more effective, when Clark says farewell to Martha amidst the wheat fields that sway in Andrew Wyeth-esque beauty above their house.

Donner’s sense of the epic, of course, invokes many other filmic references, with the early scenes nodding to the Bauhaus-era fantasias of Fritz Lang and William Cameron Menzies. Finally, heading into the Arctic wastes and using the green crystal that is the last totem of his inheritance to build from the ice a recreation of Krypton that will become the Fortress of Solitude, Clark encounters the ghostly image of his father, who takes him through an epic schooling from which he finally emerges in his full regalia, reborn as Superman, in the body of Christopher Reeve.

Superman makes a radical mood shift at this point, as the pitch of classicism and mythology collide headlong with a version of Metropolis that’s indivisible from New York circa 1978, a heady, hectic, skeptical, grubby place. Whilst the familiar figures of the Daily Planet, like puppyish young photographer Jimmy Olsen (Mark McClure) and gruff editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper), step directly out of their corny comic book origins, the world about them is contemporary, and that’s the film’s most inspired idea. In opposition to later variations where superheroes are made “darker” and more “believable” a la the endless reinventions of Batman, Superman mainly leaves the hero as exactly the same overgrown Boy Scout he always was and updates the world around him, making him initially a self-conscious ambassador of embattled ethics and retro values in a world of cynics, swingers, fads, and women’s lib, and where only a fly black guy is capable of appreciating Superman’s fashion sense. Thus, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is cleverly pitched as an audience avatar, utterly up to date in her blithely overeager savvy, delighting in the horrors she types up with fiendish energy (“There’s only one ‘p’ in rapist,” White says as he corrects her spelling when looking over her latest story) and pondering with Cosmopolitan-era shamelessness whether Superman’s anatomy is as righteous as his decorum. Yet she harbors a secret longing for a world that’s more romantic, a longing answered when Superman turns up. The humour in the film is mostly knowing rather than satiric, which is its other good idea, as when first called into action, Superman is momentarily confronted with a lack of phone booths and uses a revolving door instead.

Superman’s first adventure in character—saving Lois from a crashed helicopter hanging over the edge of the Daily Planet building’s roof—is a terrific action set piece in which Donner and editors Stuart Baird and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth work painstakingly to create a realistic sense of danger. No matter how many times you watch the film, it’s impossible not to feel the flicker of exhilaration when the man in the bright red cape swoops up against all sense to catch the falling Lois and easily fend off the falling helicopter to boot, the essence of childish fantasy made solid.

It’s interesting to note that the crash sequence utilises the same building blocks as the accidental butcheries of The Omen, as trivial physical incidents cause a calamity that leaves Lois hanging by a seatbelt high above a crowd of horrified spectators. Indeed, Superman is entirely the logical antithesis to The Omen, where the excesses of the ’70s give birth to unseen Satanic forces and an Antichrist who will exploit and avenge all sins: Donner’s Superman is, by that logic, the returned Messiah. Some critics have stated that the revival of the Superman figure at precisely this juncture was a perfectly timed exploitation of an audience exhausted by the relentless savagery of the horror and disaster movies that had preceded it. Conscious or not, these parallels work their way into the film on a production level, as Donner had insisted on a credo of “verisimilitude,” a feeling of solidity, immediacy, and engagement with the world as is. Into this landscape, Superman bursts with special effects that have been, for once, carefully employed to evoke the spirit of the original comic books and the absurdist visions of the early TV series but in a more dynamic, convincing fashion. Keen examples of this spirit occurs when Superman digs through the city sidewalk and into the earth by spinning around like a drill, and when he stretches himself out as a replacement for a missing hunk of railway track.

Donner offers halfway through the film a sequence where Superman takes the ardent Lois for a flight far above Metropolis, and the style takes a turn towards outright theatricality, befitting a scene that nods to depictions of Peter Pan and Wendy; the film also treads awfully close to risibility as Lois recounts in voiceover what sounds like a bad schoolgirl poem (actually what was originally going to be a song), though in its own way, it adds to the effect of otherworldly romanticism. Debatably, Superman falters when it introduces the true foil of the movie, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), and his half-witted comic-relief assistants Otis (Ned Beatty) and Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Luthor, always the most potent of Superman’s human enemies, is here a strutting egomaniac often at the mercy of his assistants’ clumsiness, though the maliciousness under his archness is signalled early on when he casually ejects a policeman in front of a train. More than anything else in the film, Luthor’s team come closest to evoking the reflexes of self-satire in the genre, somewhat at odds with Donner’s hitherto carefully constructed fantasy. But it’s hard to get too upset about it largely because the trio of actors are so much fun, with Hackman delivering a peach of a comic performance, and because it takes a lot of the sting out of Luthor’s plan, which if played too straight would seem grotesquely psychopathic. Obsessed with owning real estate, Luthor wants to direct a nuclear warhead into the San Andreas fault to make California fall into the sea and make him the new king of the West Coast, with another warhead casually programmed to fall on New Jersey just for the hell of it. Luthor’s hideout, a forgotten wing of Grand Central Station refitted into the perfect Park Avenue pad, is a brilliant visual gag, and Perrine’s Eve is pitched as another woman who, like Lois, is tired of negotiating modern New York—er, Metropolis—and acts as crypto-fag hag to Luthor’s queeny villainy, moaning sadly that she can never get it on with the goody guys when the time comes for her to save Superman’s life. No wonder Perrine later turned up in Can’t Stop the Music (1980), which deliberately patterned one of its protagonists after Clark’s milquetoast masculinity.

Of course, a great deal of what makes Superman work so well is the cast. As Bryan Singer discovered with his attempt to recreate the Donner aesthetic with Superman Returns (2005), his roll call of good-looking, fairly talented young actors somehow still seemed horribly callow in comparison with the spiky, lively personages Donner employed from all over the ‘70s film world. The tragic Reeve will always be associated with this role, which is certainly fair, though he was possessed of real acting chops that were often ignored. Reeve, who was completely unknown when he landed the role, finished up third-billed behind Brando and Hackman, but he sustains the film with such ease you almost don’t notice it. His Clark Kent is a hunky bumbler whose guise recalls Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938), whilst his Superman is a charming, dashing mensch capable of both good-humour and a little risqué by-play with Lois, but really a frustrated romantic with an arsenal of deep moral seriousness that seems to be the true source of his physical prowess. Reeve’s best moment comes after Superman has an entrancing first date/interview with Lois, and then returns in his guise as Clark to take her out, barely noticed by the dazzled Lois. When she’s out of the room, he suddenly gets an idea to tell her the truth. He takes off his glasses, rises to his full height and seems to inflate within his clothes, voice dropping a half-octave in new confidence, before thinking the better of it and sagging back into his human character again. Reeve was uncannily good in the role, and managed to effectively expand on the characterisation in Richard Lester’s two sequels. Similarly, Kidder made the best of a role cast not for whichever starlet was hot at the moment but for real aptness: her Lois combines adult spunk and an independent vigour that isn’t facile or undercut, but with a dash of winsome girlishness under the surface.

Lester’s first sequel, Superman II (1980), is a tighter film than Donner’s, and arguably a more urgent one, partly because the villains are more threatening and because the more comic-minded Lester’s sense of humour and depiction of the threat to a Superman suddenly prone to human weaknesses—physical, emotional, and moral—blends in a volatile mixture. But Donner’s film sustains a far greater scope and a deeper emotionalism that really seems in touch with the essence of the fabulous. The sweep of action is formidable in the lengthy finale as Superman chases down Luthor’s rogue rockets and tries to singlehandedly patch up a rapidly disintegrating California. Here the ’70s special effects are often strained to breaking point, but Donner’s sense of rapid, illustrative action glosses over the occasional tackiness. It’s also here where Superman does something that’s still remarkable in the history of the comic book movie genre: it kills the heroine. Yes, The Dark Knight did that, too, but there was something remarkably affected about that, a stunt designed to impress the audience but without any real emotional investment. For Donner and company, it’s a moment of real confrontation when Superman finds Lois dead in her car, falling earth having suffocated her, and his scream of rage and denial is, again, gut-wrenching no matter how many times you see it. All superhero stories are about defying the laws of mortality we have to live by, but this moment jabs right at the heart of the way the fantasy and the fear coincide with an intensity that flattens the competition.

Despite his father’s injunction not to change human history, Superman does just that to save one woman, obeying, ironically, the words of his human father, not his Kryptonian one. It could be the most forceful portrayal of the myth of the demigod who literally wrestles with death and saves the unfairly claimed woman since Euripides’ Alcestis. And that’s what finally makes Donner’s Superman legitimately great: it is, in its own peculiar fashion, fearless in courting primal parts of ourselves. The grin Superman flashes the audience right at the end is a shattering of the fourth wall that works perfectly, confirming that Superman is one of the singular examples of a mega-budget special-effects flick that radiates a feeling that the people who made it really wanted to make it the best way they could, purely for the audience’s sake.

29th 02 - 2012 | 6 comments »

Communion (aka Alice, Sweet Alice; Holy Terror, 1976)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Alfred Sole

By Roderick Heath

One reason horror genre fans look back to the 1970s with such keen nostalgia is not simply because lots of horror films were made, but because so many different varieties of horror film were made, before the arrival of the slasher flick late in the decade permanently skewed the genre towards more formulaic bellwethers. This brilliant little crossbreed from independent New Jersey filmmaker Alfred Sole is very much an example of the era. It straddles the mid-’70s Hitchcockian revival that included young filmmakers as radically different as Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, and Steven Spielberg; the George Romero school of gritty, handcrafted genre cinema; and it also breaches the realm of the nascent independent film, with its template of empathic realism in portraying lives in society’s peculiar niches. The setting and characters are depicted intimately, their world investigated with familiarity and feeling, and everyday pains and perversities are invoked, even as the film erupts with intervals of psychotic violence and raw suspense orchestrated in exacting cinematic terms.

Sole cowrote the screenplay with Rosemary Ritvo, and as well as a deep lexicon of film references, much of it has a flavour of being torn from memory and observation. The setting is 1961 in an intensely Catholic neighbourhood, a similar time and place to what John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt tried to revive. The changing mores of the world around the church that is the linchpin of the story and its characters’ social lives is part of the film’s unstated texture, as the tale revolves around young divorcee Catherine Spages (Lisa Miller), who is raising two daughters on the cusp of pubescence, Alice (Linda Sheppard) and Karen (Brooke Shields).

At the film’s outset, Catherine shepherds her daughters to visit the handsome, much-liked young Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich). Tom lives with another priest and a monsignor (Peter Bosch), all taken care of by the dedicated Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton). The purpose for the visit is to arrange for Karen’s first communion, and Father Tom gives Karen an ornate cross on a chain. Alice, distracted and irritated by the attention her sister is receiving, scares Mrs. Tredoni by sneaking about wearing a doll-like mask. When Karen later receives her communion dress, Alice steals the veil and then one of Karen’s dolls; when the distraught Karen tracks Alice to an abandoned building, Alice frightens her by slamming a fire door shut behind her, sealing her in a decrepit space. When she releases her, Alice bullies her sister into keeping quiet about it. When Karen is standing, last in line to receive communion, she’s grabbed by a figure clad in the same doll-like mask and the ubiquitous yellow raincoat all of the young girls who go to a local Catholic school wear. Karen is strangled with a candle, and her killer stuffs her body into a trunk, steals her cross, and places a lighted candle in with it. Alice enters the church wearing a veil she claims she picked up, and soon, the smell of burning attracts attention and Karen’s body is found to a general furor. When Karen is buried, her father, Dom (Niles McMaster), who has remarried, returns to attend and consoles Catherine, whilst police detectives Spina (Michael Hardstarck) and Brennan (Tom Signorelli) and Catherine’s shrewish sister Annie (Jane Lowry) make little secret of their suspicions that Alice killed her sister, a notion Catherine and Dom reject out of hand.

Alice is from the outset one of the most intensely believable and fascinating portraits of bratty youth ever committed to film. Aggressive, frightened, volatile, secretive, Alice is both victim and perpetrator of evils in a landscape where images and rituals of purity, beauty, and just order are often revealed to have seedy and decaying flipsides. She keeps a private shrine littered with stolen objects, a talismanic photo of her father, candles, and a jar full of insects she will eventually put to good use. The neighbourhood hasn’t gone bad, but there’s a feeling that behind many a door things are rotting. The Monsignor is ancient and decrepit, yet technically still an authority. Catherine’s landlord Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble) is an obese shut-in with urine stains on his pants who accepts Alice’s insults with smiling menace as he tries to paw her. Alice seems jealous of Karen partly because, like everyone else, she has a crush on Tom, who offers an aspect of the father figure just as he subliminally offers a figure of romantic aspiration for Catherine, and also because she seems to have not experienced the first communion, perhaps when Catherine was still on the outs with the church for her divorce; each time Alice steps forward to actually take communion, someone dies.

Alice is the sort of embryonic troubled youth punk and grunge rock adored celebrating. (Sheppard would go on to play in her only other film, Slava Tsukerman’s equally cultish punk relic Liquid Sky [1982]). Alice is secretly angry at her father’s departure and wants him home again, and she’s begun lashing out at everyone around her with increasingly artful offence. But she also hides a powerful, if manipulative, streak of real despair and fear of abandonment as revealed when she drops a jar of jam when Annie is bossing her about, sparking a furious kitchen confrontation. Alice is certainly infuriating and perhaps even a little dangerous—but is she unhinged enough to be a murderer? For Annie and others, Alice’s transgressive attitude is easily transmutable into sociopathic acts, especially as the killer consciously adopts the same dress and guises as Alice. When Annie leaves the Spages’ flat after her charged clash with Alice and Catherine, the same masked, raincoat-clad figure attacks her and hacks at her legs on the stairs. Annie plunges bleeding and terrified down into the lobby, screaming that Alice has attacked her, and crawls out onto the sidewalk in the pouring rain as Dom and Tom arrive.

The film’s opening titles proffer a weird gag, in which a young woman in veiling white is seen praying with a crucifix in her hands as an image of sanctified youth, only to lift the cross and reveal a dagger point on the end. It’s the first moment in a film that presents seemingly disparate things—devotion and homicide, innocence and sadism—in a confused singularity. The cleverness of Sole’s film is in the richness with which he melds humdrum detail and the heightened realism of the familiar, down-to-earth preoccupations of the characters, full of family tensions that blend love and antipathy in barely separable ways, and the more expansive cinematic gamesmanship of its thriller plot and visuals. Sole’s use of Hitchcockian visuals, justified not only by story, but also by the fact that Psycho is showing at the local movie theatre; so, the texture of remembering an era and a set of events as filtered through an associated aesthetic method is matched by an individual cinematic sensibility that expresses itself mostly keenly through close-ups. Sole builds to singular moments of feverish, almost operatic telegraphy of feeling in his close shots, as when Karen’s body is found and an exchange of looks between Tom and Catherine confirms the worst, and when Annie, screaming in panic, crawls into the torrential downpour. Sole is constantly receptive to faces, particularly those of the female cast. Miller’s Catherine, with a mature beauty, retains at first a sphinx-like aura of self-containment, often shot in cool profile or watched in silent recline, only to be constantly twisted into a mask of anxiety as she’s beset with the trials of Job as many a single mother might feel. Alice’s face with her unnerving large eyes and sullen mouth radiate force of character unleavened by the deference of maturity, and Annie’s face looks like Catherine’s except slightly smudged by a life of bossy and judgemental self-righteousness. Later, there are faces bent in pain and transfigured by madness and anger.

The actual killer calls to mind other horror movie tropes beyond Hitchcock, with the killer’s deceptive physical appearance and raincoat evoking the killer dwarf of Don’t Look Now (1973) and Dom as a similarly doomed pursuing father, whilst the mask is pure giallo movie stuff. Like George Romero’s Martin from the same year, Sole utilises an almost neorealist sensibility in his depiction of his native milieu, his feel for the assailed, decaying sensibilities of the formerly secure, and his use of genre tropes to try to describe an authentic psychic atmosphere of disconnection and alienation in communities that used to be defined by rock-solid values and an insularity both reassuring and suffocating. Alice and Martin are similar square pegs for very round holes, whose inchoate rebellions inevitably bring on punishing forces, all the more hysterical as the certainties that inform the punishers are endangered. Yet in many ways, the actual mood of Sole’s film is closer in spirit to Val Lewton than Hitchcock or Romero, in its sense of ordinary lives inflected with eruptions of the irrational. For the most part, Sole takes his material on at the far more immediate level of a family drama, and many sequences, like the kitchen bust-up, are convincing depictions of simple, emotional fracas amongst ordinary people; indeed, aspects of the film, for example, the depiction of psychologically injured youth in the wake of calamity, anticipate the more precious “serious” stuff of Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980). The process of Alice’s becoming a serious police suspect evokes the similar scenes of Antoine Doinel’s passage into the justice system in The 400 Blows (1959), even as Alice still manages to get a blow back by sabotaging a polygraph when the technician is out of the room. The visual texture around Alice becomes encaging, with repeated shots through bars and window frames isolating her from the world.

The thriller plot, then, works in tandem with depictions of the all-too-familiar dangers and threats of childhood, like the dance of malignancy Alice and Lorenzo engage in. Three sequences of sustained emotional volatility in the film’s mid-section serve both in a propelling plot purpose, but also retain self-sufficient qualities of character study and interaction. The first is when Catherine desperately pleads with, and then threatens, Annie in her hospital bed to divert her from saying that Alice attacked her, but Annie, agonised and fraught, still bawls out to her henpecked husband and the police that Alice was the guilty party. The second comes when Dom and Catherine visit Alice, who’s subsequently locked away for psychiatric evaluation, with a doctor (Louisa Horton) concluding she has schizoid tendencies; Alice at first furiously rejects them, but then buckles and chases after her mother in a teary catharsis. Alice’s incarceration means that she ceases to be the centre of the story, as Dom and Catherine move into focus in the third scene, as they momentarily give in, in their brittle and clingy states, to their still-bubbling attraction, only for a phone call from Dom’s new wife to cut into their tryst with humiliating timing. Nonetheless, Dom’s return and his determination to stick about until he can find the real killer, whom he begins to suspect might be Annie’s chubby, sullen daughter Angela (Kathy Rich), seems a perfect way not only to get his daughter out of immediate trouble, but also to prove he’s still a part of her life, vitally important to saving her unstable psyche as well as her freedom. But in a coldly inspired, mercilessly staged sequence, Dom is fooled into meeting with Angela in a park, and, spying the coated, masked figure, chases it into a disused building, where the figure stabs him in the shoulder on the stairs, and flees to a higher floor.

Dom continues to track the attacker, still believing it’s a frightened and unstable girl, only to then be knocked out, tied up, and rolled towards a high drop with chilling, laborious calm, by the murderer. This is actually Mrs. Tredoni, utterly psychotic and determined to destroy the Spages, who represent everything that’s wrong to her with a world of decaying morals, and who keep distracting her beloved Father Tom from his priestly duties and her tender care. Dom’s panicked, prone screams once he revives can’t stop her from continuing to roll him toward his doom. He manages, however, to tear Karen’s crucifix from her neck with his teeth, and won’t give it even as she smashes his teeth in with a stone, swallowing it instead, before sending him plummeting for the coup-de-grace. The grinding sense of corporeal punishment here, suffered for sins directly subsequent to the moment of near-adultery between former husband and wife, beautifully channels Catholic guilt into worldly suffering, as the killer inflicts pain as self-appointed wrath of god, albeit one who returns to scrubbing floors and making tea and grumbling. The film’s signal image inverts meaning: the mask, which on Alice signifies a longing for the depersonalised power of adult eroticism, is on Mrs. Tredoni a borrowed guise of sensuality turned grotesque, as she seeks to punish “that whore” Catherine for her perceived transgressions, and the secret perversity of the conformist, rather than the outsider, is revealed. Tredoni’s attack on Dom’s teeth carries Freudian dimensions, redolent of a prepubescent oedipal violence.

Bloodied and dirty from her exertions, she returns to the church and takes refuge in the confessional, where she admits vaguely to her sins to be given a reassuring absolution by Father Tom, who tells her she’s a good person, accidentally, implicitly affirming the rightness of her determination to punish the wicked: Tredoni, slumped in the shadows and quivering with feeling after her deed, now lifts her eyes in beatified happiness. Momentary calm, however, threatens to dissipate as Alice returns home, restored to her life by a repulsive sacrifice Catherine decides to keep secret from her for a time. Catherine still taunts Tredoni with her presence in the church, and her attempt to kill Catherine is forestalled by the most bizarre device: Alice, in her return home, leaves her jar of bugs propped on the sleeping Alphonso’s lap. When he wakes with the bugs crawling on him, his cries brings the watching detective charging in, and Tredoni, alarmed, stabs Alphonso to death and is seen fleeing. She makes it to the church, where she stands in the queue to receive communion, unaware that the police are gathering outside. Father Tom begs them to let him extract her, but Tom’s conscientiousness finally proves his own undoing as he asks Tredoni to leave and she, in a rage of betrayal and lunacy, asks why he’d ask her to leave and not “that whore” and stabs the priest in the neck.

Again, Alice’s attempt to receive communion is ruined, this time by the savage annihilation of her last father figure right in front of her, and the spectacle leaves her wandering away with Tredoni’s bag, fingered her mask and knife with a boding purpose. It’s arguable that here finally Sole steps too close to a glib twist ending, but there’s a terrible concision to it: like the same year’s Carrie, there’s a dark catharsis where damaged youth finds itself irrevocably tethered to the sins of the parents and broken morality, and rational forces no longer present any credible barrier to the young inheritor’s vengeful mind. Either way, Communion is a small masterpiece. For a cast of virtual unknowns, with the exception of I’ll Cry Tomorrow scribe Lillian Roth in a droll cameo as a medical examiner and, of course, future star Shields, the cast is remarkably effective. Sole, sadly, never came close to matching it again: whereas, by his own admission, he would have been better off remaining an independent local filmmaker, a la Romero and John Waters, he went Hollywood, and after making the utterly bizarre-sounding Tanya’s Island (1980) and the weak slasher-movie send-up Pandemonium (1982), he finished up in a career as a production designer.

22nd 02 - 2012 | 6 comments »

The Fury (1978)

Director: Brian De Palma

By Roderick Heath

Made four years after Phantom of the Paradise, The Fury is a radically different piece of filmmaking in many ways, and yet also vitally similar to its wayward predecessor. Phantom of the Paradise is De Palma’s swan song for laissez-faire youth; The Fury is a new master taking his final step toward becoming a big-budget director with a vast array of technical and financial resources at his command, big stars to work with, and a story that demanded his visualisations maintain a more traditional rhythm, though hardly free of freewheeling invention. In between, he had made Carrie and Obsession (both 1976), films where he revisited the Hitchcockian template he hit on with Sisters (1973), but also developed a more rigorous and coherent style and a richer, less insistently hip emotional palate that veers between the earnest and the ironic with often breakneck speed. They were still filled with his acerbic sense of humour and character, and maintained a socially critical vibe, but they were also rendered with a refreshed and deepened directorial sensibility, full of swooning, sensually loaded, mobile camerawork that often serves the purpose of binding together seemingly disparate events into textured wholes. In short, De Palma had grown up, and rather than seeming to be neutered by his full emergence as a mainstream filmmaker, he revelled in it, even if mainstream audiences and critics hardly always knew what to do with him.

The Fury was adapted from his own novel by John Farris, but it became in every sense a De Palma film, a coherent development of themes in Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie that represents a dazzling dance of form and function that builds towards a crescendo that some critics have rightly likened to a cinematic orgasm. It’s also one of De Palma’s most oddly unappreciated movies from his career-defining run of amplified cinema made between the mid ’70s and mid ’80s. What’s specifically remarkable about The Fury is the way, as with Carrie, he turns pulpy material into pure and personal cinema invested with a sense of emotion far beyond the sources. De Palma invested Carrie with a romanticism that was spiritually little like Stephen King’s work in which Carrie herself was as noxious a scion as her persecutors. Like Carrie, too, The Fury revolves around psychokinetic powers in adolescents, redolent of all the supercharged passions of youth, but it offers two young psychics rather than one, whose eventual meeting, fusion, and reproduction are the logical narrative and biological pay-off, but one which is complicated in an impudently clever fashion.

Whereas Gillian Bellaver, played by Amy Irving (thus suggesting her character in Carrie) has inherited the gift/curse of psychic ability and has to face similar social ostracism once her peculiarity emerges in the mercilessly bitchy realm of high school, her male counterpart Robin (Andrew Stevens) is transformed into a pampered psychopath by dint of his extraordinary abilities. De Palma’s usual, sneaky political overtones enter right at the start as a terrorist attack on an Israeli seaside town proves to have been stage-managed by repellent American government agent Childress (John Cassavettes), who runs an organisation known as PSI, which collects and develops psychic talent as the next generation of game-changing weaponry. He betrays his friend Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas) and claims his son Robin, whose gifts he wants untrammelled use of. Robin thinks Peter is killed when he tries to escape in a Zodiac and machine gun bullets causes the engine to explode. Robin is bustled away, but Peter crawls out of the ocean and sees Childress bossing about the killers; snatching up the gun of one slain attacker, Peter tries to shoot Childress, only succeeding in wounding him in the arm before fleeing and going underground. Two years later, Peter is in Chicago, close to where Childress is operating. He has hired greasy local psychic Raymond Dunwoodie (William Finley) to find Robin, a move Childress has anticipated.

Dunwoodie contacts Peter when he notices Gillian on a Lake Michigan beach, recognising her as a superior talent who could find Robin more easily. But Childress closes the net on Peter. Peter’s escape cues a lengthy, elaborate, funny sequence in which he dives out of a hotel window in just his underwear, and holes up in the apartment of a pair of loudmouths (Gordon Jump and Jane Lambert) who, in the design of the story, stand in for the most absurd components of Middle America, and a crotchety but sympathetic grandmother (Eleanor Merriam) who’s all too pleased when Peter’s arrival with a gun places her irritating daughter and son-in-law in her command. Peter then kidnaps two off-duty policemen (Dennis Franz and Michael O’Dwyer) and makes them drive him away from the goons on his tail, finally fooling one team of agents to gun down another and then crash themselves. Peter then contacts his new girlfriend, Hester (Carrie Snodgress), who works at an institute devoted to psychic research, a place through which many powerful young talents pass. Peter first met with her in the hope Robin may have been placed at the institute at some point, a well-founded assumption, as the institute’s director Dr. McKeever (Charles Durning) is, in spite of his misgivings, essentially a talent scout for Childress. When Gillian causes one of her obnoxious school friends (Hilary Thompson) to bleed spontaneously during a cafeteria argument, she decides to take refuge at the institute, accidentally putting herself in Childress’ hands, but also soon picking up traces of Robin’s presence and current whereabouts.

De Palma’s mature style always pulsates with a deeply corporeal sensibility in films that often become a tötentanz of blood, sex, and carnal excess, innately infused with an eroticised quality. That quality is apparent in this film’s very structuring, down to its offhand jokes, like building scenes that tweak casual sex gags into moments of narrative consequence—for example, Dunwoodie’s girl-watching, which creeps out Gillian and her friend, proving to be a different and even more invasive kind of cruising, or Hester receiving what seems to be an obscene call from a heavy breather who turns out to be Peter, freezing cold after his dip in the lake. De Palma’s feel for eruptions of violence that transfigure flesh and spirit is the key for all the narrative’s pivotal moments, as when Gillian accidentally grasps McKeever’s scarred hand, and has a psychic vision of Robin’s near-fatal attempt to escape the institute, with De Palma achieving one of the keenest moments of voyeuristic switchback by back-projecting Gillian in front of the action she’s “seeing.” Later, she hooks directly into Robin’s mind as he’s experiencing one of the experimental procedures Childress and his research team are inflicting on him, becoming the subject herself, a prone participant in an act of forced viewing of what he thinks was his father’s death: it’s as elaborately cruel as Swan’s videotaping of Winslow Leach in Phantom. Both moments are sparked by Gillian touching someone, and she causes the spontaneous bleeding that finally proves near-fatal for Dr. Ellen Lindstrom (Carol Rossen), McKeever’s number two and lover, who collapses in a bloody mess when Gillian finally returns from her trance. Gillian offers a similar take on the Typhoid Mary character to that of Rogue from the X-Men movies in that, as her gift becomes more pronounced, she becomes increasingly dangerous and unable to make simple human contact. Childress offers her the promise of control of her gifts, but, like the promise to polish Winslow Leach’s gifts, it’s a Faustian bargain of the worst kind, because Childress’ real programme is to turn his psychics not into warriors, which implies a personal sovereignty even in battle and bloodshed, but into weapons, malleable and directed.

De Palma, in his way, helped usher in the era of modern blockbuster filmmaking, defined by a string of elaborate wind-ups with punchy pay-offs, and yet his works finally end up at odds with that format. The Fury was often fiercely criticised when it was released, but like some other signal works of the Movie Brats, like Star Wars (1977)—much less adult than De Palma’s works, but in some ways just as sophisticated in relying on an audience to put together the drama in instinctive, visually associative fashion rather than via literary ways—it represents an evolution in the form that finally threw away the stage roots of the mainstream cinema model. De Palma’s overt worship of the likes of Hitchcock, Lean, and Leone is apparent in the way he constructs sequences in his mature films like symphonic movements, serving their own self-contained sense of grammar as much as an overall narrative.

Whilst De Palma is often thought of as a maven of raw cinematic values and not a dramatist, that reputation often ignores his ear for dialogue and touch with actors. Having stoked Oscar-nominated performances from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie in Carrie—a miracle for a horror movie in the ’70s—here he gives Douglas one of his best roles of the decade and gets great stuff from the rest of the cast. Irving, a fascinating starlet with a hint of the leonine to her glam, is terrific as Gillian, the film’s pivotal figure as a girl who grows from object of ogling to empowered engine of wrath. De Palma is also keen to the offbeat magnificence of Snodgress, Oscar-nominated herself several years earlier for Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) but little used afterwards, and Durning, who gets a marvellous mid-movie scene where, hurt and squirming under the weight of evil forces, he fends off Ellen’s solicitous invitations in wanting to remain alone and get drunk. It’s the sort of moment that contributes immeasurably to the texture of the film, and reveals an empathy for middle-aged compromise relatively rare in De Palma’s work, even if it doesn’t actually serve the story one iota.

De Palma constantly offers technically demanding shots, with the aid of cinematographer Richard H. Kline, that bind together multiple actions in single frames, and the editing by Paul Hirsch is something close to genius, in moments as seemingly minor as the test for psychic power Ellen and Hester hold at Gillian’s high school, her overpowering talent revealed as she sends an electric train run by mental power at a rocketing rate around a table, zipping past a chart, the clauses of which, the graduating levels of psychic power, are counted off one by one as Gillian’s power becomes clearer and clearer. Another is the shot towards the end where Gillian’s hand, trembling with new-found authority, fills the screen, Childress, with his withered hand redolent of secret impotence no matter how powerful he acts, in the background vibrating as vengeful energy is unleashed on him. The Fury is a tale of colliding and binding forces. The concurrent plotlines of Peter and Gillian are distinct, if destined to coincide, in their personal issues, ages, genders, sense of the world, and even rhythms of storytelling. Peter is already aware of the trap Gillian is walking into unawares, and the film’s deceptively action-thriller-toned first act segues into a quieter, sinister build-up as Gillian’s tale comes to the fore.

Hers is one of apparent homecoming, settling in at the institute where there’s an atmosphere of cheery fellowship and prodigious possibility: The Fury, in that sense, anticipates not only the X-Men films, but also the basic motif of the Harry Potter series, exploiting that atmosphere, and the attendant sense of longing that the exceptional and the outcast share in looking for good fellowship. But whereas in those films, the institutions are positive and offer refuge from harsh realities, as ever in De Palma here the institution is corrupt, the benign care a façade, albeit one that makes McKeever, Ellen, and Hester uneasy in sustaining. McKeever makes a weak attempt at rebelling against Childress by lying about Gillian’s talents, but Childress doesn’t have to share his charges psychic talents to spot he’s being bullshitted. De Palma builds his web of enmeshed parallels not only though crucial moments where Gillian accesses Robin’s mind and has flash visions of the future, but also in a teasing moment when Hester tells Gillian about her boyfriend, the younger woman unaware that she’s talking about the father of the boy she’s become psychically tethered to, describing him as a great dancer who’s only frustratingly difficult to get hold of.

When the two plot strands do finally meet, it comes in one of De Palma’s most ebulliently staged set pieces, as, at Peter’s insistence, Hester plans an escape for Gillian before Childress’s goons can take her out of the institute, going through an elaborately comic routine to arrange the crucial moment when Gillian can take off out the back door; she and Hester fly in a customary De Palma use of agonising slow motion where chains of cause and effect are identified in their components before they crash together and create chaos. John Williams’ largely Herrmann-esque score here offers for a few brief moments that would sound equally at home in E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) in conveying momentary, joyous liberation. Liberation, however, turns on a dime to desperation, as Hester accidentally knocks over an agent rushing to catch them, one moment of happenstance that gives them a clear run, and the pair converges on the taxi in which Peter waits, aiming a pistol at the pursuing car filled with more agents. But his excellent aim proves his undoing, for when he takes out the driver, the car swerves and strikes Hester, sending her crashing through a parked car’s window, a bloodied, instantly fatal demise. Another agent charges out of the neighbouring park and grasps Gillian: Peter, horrified at the sight of Hester in and act he is unwittingly caused (another constantly recurring De Palma touch), turns and shoots down the agent with punitive fury; Gillian regards the gun-wielding stranger who is her “saviour” with bewildered terror. It’s not the most expansive of De Palma’s set pieces, but it is still one of his most ruthless and lucidly composed, not only in the way he physically binds actions together and pursues them with dark irony, but for its thematic intelligence in illustrating the notion that violent resistance always claims innocent lives no matter how good the cause.

Like many of De Palma’s high career films, The Fury becomes a metaphorical tale of resistance to a corrupt order, with outsider heroes flailing in their attempts to penetrate the figurative (and sometimes literal) castles of their persecutors, who usually affect parental or romantic concern: such is true of Sisters, Phantom, Carrie, and Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1982), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission: Impossible (1996). Scarface (1983) and Femme Fatale (2002) would in differing fashions see the figures converge in epics of interior character conflict. Cassavettes’ marvellously malevolent Childress is a perverter and corrupter in the guise of friend and guide; like Sisters’ villainous psychiatrist and Phantom’s Swan, his plots begin to give way under the strain of trying to maintain a façade, but tearing that façade down properly usually comes at a punishing cost. The Fury also works as another parable of how a society rewards and destroys talent, like Phantom, as Robin can easily be construed as simply an inflated version of any heroic young jock. He is rewarded by being treated “like a prince”, to the extent of being basically given his attractive supervising doctor, Susan Charles (Fiona Lewis), as concubine, even as his aggressive instincts are tweaked and his rage unleashed by the regimen Childress has prescribed, to make the best of his abilities. The chief target of his new licence is, then, his lover, whom he finally kills in the most hideous fashion. What is created is a monster in control of his powers but not his mind or emotions, a perfect end product of Childress’ philosophy. Even here, there’s a dark, erotic joke at work, as Robin’s fulminating frustration is based in how his level of psychic control is not matched by physical control, still messy in a young man’s fashion and unable to sexually please Susan.

The inevitable disintegration is signalled when Susan coaxes Childress into letting her take Robin out to a fun fair in a brief break from experiments, unaware that Robin has already become too crazed and immoral: seeing a group of Arab men accompanying a prince, reminding him of the (fake) killers on the beach, he sends the prince’s Ferris wheel spinning out of control, car flying off through the air and crashing through a window upon his retinue. Robin repeats the trick later when he tortures Susan to death, spinning her around until her blood is painting the walls of their ritzy apartment in the PSI’s mansion headquarters. And, of course, in Robin himself and Childress’ operation, the centre cannot hold. Thus, when Peter and Gillian finally reach the PSI mansion, Gillian’s presence enrages Robin, who sees her as someone brought in to replace him. He kills Susan and two of Childress’s goons, and when Childress finally sends Peter to calm him down, Robin instead causes his own death, driving himself and his father out through a window to dangle from a high parapet. His personality disintegrates at precisely the moment he becomes a virtual god, and he tries to hurt his father rather than save himsef., and Peter hurls himself over the same high parapet in grief. It’s the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy, but Childress doesn’t have any time for that: waving his hands disgustedly (“Go on, get ‘em outta my sight!”), he instead sets about seducing Gillian as the next candidate.

Many of De Palma’s heroes finally fail in their attempts to undo evil and are left traumatised, if not dead, but Gillian evolves into one of his most triumphant, if finally frightening, heroes. Having absorbed from Robin at the point of death his honed gifts, now blended with her still-present moral awareness, she turns on Childress in the most memorable and effective of revolts, first blinding him, his gore-dripping eyes reminiscent of X: The Man the X-Ray Eyes (1963), and then giving him exactly what he wants, proof of an awesome new power, but not in the manner he intended. Reminiscent of the finale of Zabriskie Point (1970)—and, of course, De Palma would soon make a more overt tribute to Antonioni with Blow Out—Gillian blows Childress to pieces in a moment De Palma offers in distended instant replay, an orgasmic celebration of, yes, fury unleashed on the false father. It’s one of the great comeuppances in movie history, and not for the first or last time, De Palma proved that he was a bastard, but a magnificent kind of bastard.

3rd 02 - 2012 | 12 comments »

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Director/Screenwriter: Brian De Palma

By Roderick Heath

Brian De Palma’s volatile career, whatever you might think of it, must be regarded as one of the most individualistic of American commercial directors. His oeuvre breaks up neatly, at least from a distance, into three movements, encompassing his raucous apprentice work, his chicly gaudy, richly eccentric major phase, and his often patchy, yet still restlessly creative and critical late career. These phases are each demarcated nicely by some of the many major financial flops De Palma has suffered in the ironic life of a director who so often seemed willing to offer up to his audience everything it wanted, but in such immoderate, immersive, gleefully perverse terms that he instead seemed to be making a joke of such pandering.

At the same time, De Palma seemed to take the idea of being an auteur more seriously than any other young American director, not only offering up personal themes and stories and expressive cinematic techniques that clashed with the settled textures of mainstream moviemaking, but in making his own creativity part of the show. He set about ostentatiously repeating devices, scenes, and sometimes whole movies, composing his epic signature scenes, then pulling them apart and staging them all over again in new contexts and with new resolutions. Such were the building blocks of his most famous string of films from the late ’70s through to the mid ’90s. But De Palma’s eventual pigeonholing as a postmodern remix artiste for genre fare with a thing for Hitchcock to a large extent concealed a major strand of his artistic personality, that of the sly, subversive gamester with a remorseless satiric streak.

De Palma was perhaps the closest of the major Movie Brats to the counterculture, with one foot planted squarely in the guerrilla theatre and film worlds of ’60s New York, and the influence of that zesty freeform sphere remained hard-wired in his aesthetic sensibility, constant dialectic partner to the media-mad young nerd with a yen for the lush, eroticised space of the cinematic frame. De Palma’s early films are therefore mostly comedies of manners, including the hipster gagfest Greetings (1968) and The Wedding Party (1969), and in such company, his first “thriller,” Sisters (1973), seems to wear the apparel of a Hitchcockian tale in large part to satirise the mores of early ’70s New Yorkers, and offer up a deliberately absurd, anticlimactic variation that makes fun of the whole idea of witnessing and investigation, as doomed and self-defeating as that of Gerrit Graham’s JFK conspiracy theorist’s pursuit in Greetings. His next film was his first work to gain major studio hype behind it, Phantom of the Paradise, destined to be a financial failure before cult revival and therefore something of a false start before he stepped back and reintroduced himself with Carrie (1976), a film that expands on many elements of Phantom whilst offering them within a new, deceptive, high-cinema composure.

What distinguishes Phantom from the films that would follow it, and keeps it tied to the less polished works before it, is its sense of anarchic energy and blackly comic rapture. The greatest insult in the ’60s had been to be labelled a sell-out, and written over Phantom in neon letters is the film’s simultaneous embrace and ridicule of selling out, tackled with a pulverising, panicky bravado. Early scenes make use of the same mock-silent film passages of sped-up slapstick that had often punctuated De Palma’s apprentice work, essayed now in the context of a film that transforms the morbid romanticism of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera and its many subsequent film versions into an outright Faustian parable, mixed with a freebasing critique of pop music and celebrity worship. It’s as radical, and much more visceral a take on those ideas, as Peter Watkins’ unnervingly predicative Privilege (1967), but real life would soon catch up with and surpass its prototypical visions of glam rock, punk, and death metal excess.

The film’s impresario supervillain Swan (Paul Williams) is depicted as the force behind all of the movements in recent music, a man who sold his soul to the devil for eternal youth and therefore always has his pulse on the current youth spirit. Phantom kicks off with an expository voiceover by Twilight Zone scribe Rod Serling positioned somewhere between rock-doc awe and sinister prelude, before the opening credits unfurl over a performance by Swan’s current hit band The Juicy Fruits, a satire on the nostalgic shtick of Sha-Na-Na, Grease, The Rocky Horror Show, and other self-consciously retro theatre pieces and acts of the early ’70s. This opening is more gruesome than any of the physical violence that follows, as sleazy mock-greasers fondle each other and audience members, and nearly break into fights, whilst singing an absurd song about a heroic musical artist who killed himself get a hit record and save his sister’s life with the profits. The jokey image of the mock self-annihilation by stabbing repeats later in the film in a “real,” yet also even more flagrantly artificial, context.

De Palma’s version of Leroux’s tragic Phantom is Winslow Leach, played by William Finley, a gangly, adaptable character actor who appears in much of De Palma’s early work, and here takes the lead for the first and last time. His Leach bears a distinct resemblance to Warren Zevon. Hapless, dowdy, and painfully naïve in his life, Leach’s superlative talents as a musician serve only to destroy him. Hired to play piano during breaks in Swan’s shows, Leach is overheard by the impresario, who, impressed, orders his cruder flunky Philbin (George Memmoli) to get hold of Leach’s music. Winslow is reluctant to part with his songs, which are only portions of a magnum opus based on the Faust legend, but agrees on the promise that Swan wants to produce the record. Winslow tries to see Swan at his Death Records office and then his home. There he meets a young singer, Phoenix (Jessica Harper), practising for an audition using one of the Faust songs, and Winslow is dazzled. Winslow is quickly ejected when discovered, and so is Phoenix, when finds out the audition is just the nightly intake for Swan’s harem of groupies and refuses. Winslow, on the other hand, dresses up and joins the concubines and manages to meet Swan, but he promptly has him plucked out, beaten up, and then set up by flunky cops on a drugs charge. In jail, Winslow has his teeth removed and replaced by metal ones as a part of a perverse experiment in sanitation he’s forced into, and when he hears one of Swan’s stars singing his songs on the radio, he goes berserk, escapes, and breaks into Death Records. While attempting to sabotage the production machinery, Winslow is caught in a record press and burns his face. He stumbles outside and falls into the harbour, and is presumed to have drowned.

De Palma’s wild, dark, vicious sense of humour and technique are not only constantly apparent in this fast and furious first act, but at a height of unhinged energy he never tried to match again. De Palma and set designer Jack Fisk’s entrap the actors, including Harper, within rooms just as engulfing and overpowering in decorative mise-en-scene as those she would face in Suspiria (1977). The story, and De Palma’s approach to it, tread a precarious line between skit-like Theatre of Cruelty conceit and frenzied emotional biography. He employs strange, space-moulding sets, obtuse, often handheld camerawork, oddball scene grammar, and a barrage of student film tricks in the course of telling Winslow’s story. De Palma’s basic point comes out the better for such magnified distortion, that for much of the world’s self-appointed founts of power able to beatify with fame and fortune, gatekeeping against pretenders and the potentially unruly and the excessively talented is as vital an aspect of their power as any other. Thus, the age of celebrity turns devastating failure into mirth for consumers. The storytelling is as charged with the same frantic, drug-enhanced, one-step-ahead sensibility as the legendary ’70s recording industry itself. As Swan himself puts it later, referring to why he doesn’t want to make a star of Phoenix, “She’s perfect, and you know how I abhor perfection in anyone other than myself.” Those who meet this head-on without caution and self-awareness are inevitable victims, comical foils for the cynical.

Winslow’s attempts to penetrate the Olympian monster’s lair likewise anticipate the structural motifs of The Fury (1978) and The Untouchables (1987), whilst Swan is a version of such malefic, would-be masters of fate as John Cassavettes’ Childress and De Niro’s Al Capone. The notion of the Phantom being a scarred and furious victim of artistic plagiarism and the evils of commercialised culture—an idea that comes not from the novel but from the 1943 Claude Rains version—is played up here as a tragicomic exercise where, as is often the case in De Palma’s work, naivete, aspiration, and innocence are hardly guarded from harm, but are instead brutally assaulted and cruelly broken (e.g., in the grim fates of Carrie White, Charles Martin Smith in The Untouchables, and the victimised females of The Black Dahlia [2006] and Redacted [2007]).

The flipside is often a furious, amoral retribution that reproduces and exceeds the violence of the wicked. Winslow returns as the Phantom, a work of performance art, encased in black leather and an art-deco bird mask, to haunt The Paradise, Swan’s gaudy new theatrical setting for his roster of acts. Winslow is agonised by his disfigured face and broken voice, but his artistic dedication and passion are to a certain extent released by becoming the Phantom, a point underlined with the ease with which Swan, after Winslow has announced his vengeful presence by exploding a bomb during a rehearsal in the Paradise, seduces him back into rewriting Faust. Winslow points out Phoenix to Swan at an audition and insists on her as his onstage avatar, and Phoenix rises to the challenge with an impromptu performance.

Swan’s genius as a creator and manipulator of talent is drawn out with impudent concision as he fine-tunes an electronic gadget for Winslow to speak and sing through, turning his hoarse, electrified wailing into a smooth croon with studio gadgets: he can turn the worst freak into a pop god, and vice versa. It’s worth noting that De Palma’s Phantom (being as De Palma was a friend of George Lucas, and who would write Star Wars’ opening scroll) seems to have influenced the look and concept of Darth Vader, who would similarly be revealed as another resurrected Phantom. Swan, of course, plans to double-cross Winslow even in the act of pretending to give him a second life.

Phantom of the Paradise references horror film imagery and mystique, naturally, but it’s also strongly under a comic filmmaker influence: as the first part uses Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin as templates, the second is under the spell of the Marx Brothers and A Night at the Opera (1935), as Swan gets Winslow to sign an impossibly long and obtuse contract (“All articles that are excluded shall be deemed included”), Winslow hovers above the stage a la Harpo to commit sabotage, and the distance between audience and performance is erased. Swan’s ludicrous acts meanwhile all use the same singers (Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, and Peter Elbling) shifting between musical guises and eras: The Juicy Fruits with their ’50s style, their successors, the hideously faux-groovy The Beach Bums, and finally, The Undeads, whose grotesque onstage shenanigans, including pretending to tear audience members to shreds to build their lead singer, “Beef” (Graham) whilst caked in sepulchral make-up, charts a logical evolution of pop tastes towards calculated outrage and excess. The film’s jibes at manufactured stars, schlocky gimmicks, industry sexism, and coercion were intended to be Paddy Chayefsky-like satire, but life caught up with it all quickly and not only assimilated the criticisms, but made them part of the mystique.

Nonetheless, the humour and revulsion the film invokes toward the pop industry retain a charge far beyond the relative innocence of the equally farcical This Is Spinal Tap (1984) because De Palma backs it up with his twisted fantasia. Images of punctured and roasted flesh and operatic emotion alternate with this satiric panoply, imbuing it with a similar feel of sodden, sensual overload and consumerist satiety found through corporeal violence, such as in the later scenes of Scarface (1983). De Palma spares no one because it’s a world that spares no one: even the talented and intelligent Phoenix is easily suckered in by Swan and turned literally overnight from willowy starlet to drugged-up fame whore whom Swan can seduce and marry (but actually planning to assassinate to outdo Winslow for onstage killing as entertainment coup). Swan’s first choice for a Winslow stand-in is not Phoenix, whom he relegates to back-up singer, but Beef, a flagrantly gay showbiz pro whom Swan reinvents as a Frankensteinian id-beast compelling all potential audiences with his ambiguous hunkiness, one of the many moments of arch gender-bending that inflect both the film and De Palma’s oeuvre. Beef stands in for Carlotta, the prima donna in The Phantom of the Opera who is threatened into standing aside for the Phantom’s preferred singer. Here, in the first of De Palma’s many send-ups/variations on Psycho’s shower murder, Winslow slices his way through Beef’s shower curtain with a knife, but instead of stabbing him, jams a toilet plunger against his mouth and delivers his warning. Swan has Winslow bricked up in his studio after he’s finished writing Faust, but Winslow, realising he’s been betrayed again and that a hack is singing his music, smashes his way out and kills Beef onstage by dropping a lightning-shaped neon sign on him.

Swan, it proves, really has made a pact with the devil to retain his youth, turning his own habit of videotaping everything around him into a vessel for a Dorian Gray-like preservation. De Palma’s career fascination with recording mediums within recording mediums, and the act and experience of voyeurism blending together into a self-reflexive arc, is ever-present here, but surges to the foreground particularly during the film’s most dazzling scene. Winslow spies on Swan making love to Phoenix through the skylight of his house, and Swan spies on Winslow spying on him, Winslow’s contorted outrage and now godlike self-pity being provoked and enjoyed by his nemesis. Winslow immediately tries to kill himself, but finds he’s locked into eternal life with Swan by signing his contract and can die from his self-inflicted wound only when Swan also dies, a fact Swan explains as the most elegant capstone to his malevolence. Casting Williams as Swan is an uncomfortable fit, not exactly because of his diminutive size, for there’s a good and thematically apt joke in this, but because he lacks the dark, overwhelming charisma the part really needs; indeed, De Palma’s films often live and die on who plays the Mephistopheles figure. Finley, on the other hand, invests his character with a heightened blend of the comedic and the pathetic: his full-bore embrace of the expressive Grand Guignol heart of the film looks forward as far as Fiona Shaw’s perverse monster in The Black Dahlia, a film as preoccupied with Faustian bargains, conspiracies, and transfiguring bodily damage as this one.

Phantom of the Paradise is undoubtedly a bratty film, and an immature one in many ways, though this does not mean it’s inauthentic or merely flashy. It does, perhaps inevitably, collide with potential dead spots of narrative and invention, which De Palma’s style wasn’t yet attuned to overcoming. An expository sequence of Winslow penetrating Swan’s secret video library, where he finds the key to destroying his nemesis, is overlong, too flagrantly skit-like, and lacks a quality later De Palma would grasp firmly, that of the reality-changing impact of penetrating the final layer to a mystery. De Palma is still inclined to overindulge his comic actors like Graham and Memmoli. But De Palma’s energy is all-conquering, rendering the film as an ecstatic flux that manages to combine two stances often thought to be exclusive: the implacably hip and the flagrantly emotional. Shows of dazzling technique are spotted throughout, if not linked with the same careful sense of orchestration that distinguishes the likes of The Fury, Dressed to Kill (1980), or Femme Fatale (2002). As well as the film’s constant refrains to silent comedy and melodrama, there’s a strangely elegiac montage of Winslow composing in his Phantom lair, swooning on the same tone of deathless romanticism as Winslow’s music. A lengthy split-screen sequence in which Winslow plants a bomb during a rehearsal by the Beach Bums, unfolds in two simultaneous shots that absorb secret machinations and the abuse and coercion that lie behind the contrived appearance of sunny shenanigans, before resolving in the explosion that announces a legitimised terrorist riposte to Swan’s regime.

Winslow, whilst becoming a killer and a terrorist, remains the film’s moral centre in his perverse fashion: his destructiveness cuts through the overwhelming artifice and cynicism of Swan’s, and when he realises Swan’s last, devastating betrayal, he charges to the rescue, cueing a breathtaking sequence, furiously switching between perspectives, from that of Swan’s assassin fixing crosshairs on Phoenix, to a racing hand-held camera chasing Winslow as he charges to the rescue. He swings into the auditorium and snatches away Swan’s mask, which now conceals not his unnatural youth but a shrivelled and hideous visage. Winslow delivers his coup de grace, stabbing Swan to death with the beak of a bird mask from a dancer, turning the emblem of Death Records into the literal instrument of death. De Palma’s staging of the genuinely crazed finale refuses any sense of tragic closure, however, zooming up and away from Winslow’s body in the midst of the orgiastic eruption that aims instead for catharsis, revelling in all spectacle. Here violent death, Winslow’s revealed, hideous face, and Swan’s extermination only register as sideshows of the convulsive carnival. A remorseful, mourning Phoenix clutches Winslow in the midst of a party, prefiguring Blow Out (1981), and a woman stands watching, wearing Winslow’s mask, hinting at the fusion of the two figures in a world where all opposites come crashing together in one great apocalyptic shindig.

25th 12 - 2011 | 2 comments »

The Front (1976)

Director: Martin Ritt

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Today is Christmas, an increasingly secular holiday that has come to mean gift giving, decorations, big meals with family and friends, favorite movies and music, and leisure for most of the workforce. Those who keep the religious traditions of the holiday go to church to celebrate the birth of the messiah, Jesus Christ, and think about peace and good will among all people. In my capacity as professional killjoy (as evidenced by my reviews of Midnight in Paris and The Artist), I am now going to remind you about the end of the story that began on this date 2,011 years ago—the king of the Jews was crucified, and his message of peace and love repeatedly ignored by generations of warring, racist people the world over.

Which brings me to The Front, which tells the true story of how the American entertainment industry collaborated with the federal government to deprive film and television creatives—many of them Jews—of their livelihoods through the use of a blacklist. The blacklist was unacknowledged by studio and television executives; directors, writers, and actors simply were told their work had somehow gone downhill or that they were not a good fit for the material going into production. Why? Because they were Communists or had become “controversialities” by coming to the attention of Commie hunters at the studios or being questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) or the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, headed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Everything from being a full-fledged member of the Communist Party to signing one petition could be grounds for blacklisting, investigation, and imprisonment.


The Front is a tragicomic look at how the blacklist worked and how some people sank and swam in its wake. The film gains all the more energy and poignancy from being told by several blacklisted artists—director Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actors Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough, and Joshua Shelley—and including the slightly fictionalized story of blacklisted television star Philip Loeb.

The film focuses right from the start on Howard Prince (Woody Allen), a cashier and bookie in New York City who owes money all over town and has tried the patience and pocketbook of his brother Myer (Marvin Lichterman) for the last time. He has lunch one day with his boyhood friend, writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), who tells him that the television studios have stopped buying his scripts. Miller has been blacklisted, and desperate to keep working to support his wife and three children, he asks Howard if he will act as Miller’s front—the person who will put his name on Miller’s scripts and be a physical presence with the network executives and producers. Offering him 10 percent of whatever he gets for the scripts cements the deal with the willing Howard. Howard brings a script to the show Miller used to write for and becomes the new darling of producer Phil Sussman (Bernardi), as well as the idol and boyfriend of WASP script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci).

Naturally, this overnight sensation must be checked out by the network’s anti-Communist investigator (Remak Ramsay). Soon, his ties not only to Miller, but also to two other blacklisted writers (Gough and David Margulies) for whom he fronts, are discovered, and Howard must agree to a token appearance before HUAC. As the network is desperate to keep using him, Howard is assured that if he gives up just one name to the committee, he can keep riding the gravy train.

The Front largely eschews an overtly political angle by focusing on the real-life consequences of the blacklist and the various kinds of people who got caught up in the maelstrom. Howard does what he does initially out of friendship and then to make some real money. He moves into a nice apartment and buys tailor-made suits, but he does the right thing by squaring his debts with his brother and the gamblers whose bets he took. He’s thrilled to be dating a beautiful shiksa and horrified when she quits her lucrative job rather than fire a blacklisted actor, but he calls her out for romanticizing the struggle against the blacklist and loving his talent instead of him when he confesses that he can barely write a grocery list. Woody Allen indulges a lot of his own relationship shtik in the film, and this aspect of The Front is the weakest.

By contrast, the plot line involving Hecky Brown (Mostel), the television star who suddenly doesn’t seem right for his hit show, is easily the most affecting. He and Howard become friendly during the short time their paths cross at the television studio, and it’s easy to see why. The flamboyantly funny Hecky isn’t so different from Howard—he’s basically apolitical and in need of money to support his family. His “Communist past” can be put down to trying to get laid and supporting the Soviet Union during World War II when they were allies of the United States. He’s willing to write letters, even spy for HUAC to keep working, but to no avail. He has to bum a ride with Howard to a Catskills resort to perform for many times less than his normal fee; the resort owner (Shelley) is only too happy to take advantage of Hecky’s misfortune by cutting the meager fee even further.

Hecky’s humiliation makes life unbearable for him, and one night, he makes a visit to Howard to apologize for his tantrum at the resort, checks into a hotel, and takes delivery on a bottle of champagne from room service. He toasts himself in a mirror, goes into the next room, and moves out of the frame. Moments later, a sheer curtain blows into the frame, and the camera moves to reveal the bottle of champagne sitting on the sill of an open window. The film craft in this scene is superb, with its understated image of Hecky seeing himself only in terms of how he is mirrored back to himself by his adoring audience, and an off-camera suicide that offers a beautiful, diaphanous image of horror waving angelically at the audience. Mostel, a personal friend of Philip Loeb, infuses his performance with all the love he had for the man whom he personifies as Hecky Brown; there wasn’t a dry eye in my house after this scene played.

Writer Bernstein captures the collusion between the entertainment moguls and HUAC in a scene of nauseating obsequiousness. Network head Harry Stone (MacIntyre Dixon) all but gives the committee members blow jobs for their selflessly patriot service to the country, and they gobble it up like greedy lapdogs. The exchange is a good reminder not only to Howard, but also to the audience that such egos demand tribute and obedience and that naming names pays them tribute and builds their appetite for power. When prompted to give up a name, for example, Hecky Brown, who can no longer be hurt by these sharks, Howard realizes that to do so would be to confirm the committee’s verdict on the harmless entertainer and give his employer and government an out for their shameful behavior. His parting words, shocking coming out of the mouth of Woody Allen, are “Fellas… I don’t recognize the right of this committee to ask me these kind of questions. And furthermore, you can all go fuck yourselves.”

Allen handles the comedy in the film well, particularly the daily travails he has to negotiate when the studio asks for last-minute rewrites and he has to find a way to get them from Miller. Ritt directs these panicked scenes with verve, and film editor Sidney Levin maintains a rhythm for this scene—indeed, for the entire film—that shows the precarious roller coaster all of the characters are riding, exhilarating for Howard at first, then getting increasingly burdensome. The slow stammering Allen engages in when stonewalling the committee is one of his best scenes on camera in any film and builds a tense exasperation in the committee members that is a wickedly pleasurable experience.

The Front begins and ends with Frank Sinatra singing “Young at Heart,” a hit song in 1953-54, the time period during which the film takes place. The lyrics, “Fairy tales can come true/It can happen to you/If you’re young at heart,” give way to the bitter irony of the second verse “You can go to extremes with impossible schemes/You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams/And life gets more exciting with each passing day.” Perhaps in shame for helping to take down Philip Loeb, Columbia Pictures coproduced this film. For blacklisted artists who had been living the fairy tale of the American Dream until their youthful activities brought down the wrath of a paranoid nation, The Front offers them public redemption—and the paycheck many of them were denied during this dark time.

5th 11 - 2011 | 20 comments »

The French Connection (1971)/French Connection II (1975)

Directors: William Friedkin/John Frankenheimer

By Roderick Heath

It’s 40 years now since The French Connection was released, soon to capture the Best Picture Oscar, set up William Friedkin as a directorial talent with the world before him, and make Gene Hackman a top film star, pushing age 40. From such a distance, during which time the film’s status as a classic has wavered and Friedkin’s career has never quite lived up to its great early promise, now the cultural bullseye The French Connection scored seems ever more peculiar. Not simply in that it’s a crime flick, not a prestigious genre, lacking the epic pretensions of The Godfather which would win similar garlands the following year, but also in the rich yet radical, machine-like beauty of its filmmaking, the eerie disquiet of its ending, the oft-ugly ferocity of its pig-faced bog Irish cop hero, and tangible atmosphere of then-decaying New York. The two French Connection movies are coarse, bloody, rapidly paced, unswerving and experiential rather than analytical. The first entry is a police procedural that seeks for the most part to clearly, intricately, and excitingly describe a fictionialised version of one of the biggest drug busts in history, with as much nuts and bolt detail about both smuggling and policing as any film ever made. Lacking big stars, romance, moralising, and even much action except in the central, ever-impressive chase sequence, The French Connection brutally contrasts much of what passes as popular filmmaking today, and Friedkin’s film and its sequel by John Frankenheimer constitute summits of mainstream American movie-making.

Friedkin’s film, moreover, always strikes me as a different movie each time I watch it. Initial viewings are almost a sensory overload: there’s little that is overtly tricky about Friedkin’s filmmaking, but the depth of his reliance on visual storytelling, the alertness to environment, to detail, to nuance of behaviour essayed at such rapidity, infuse the screen with a lustre that only seems to increase as time passes. With repeated viewings the potency of Friedkin’s conception of Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle’s cat-and-mouse game with drug kingpins as a form of class warfare jumps out at me. Anti-drug messages were big at the time of the film’s production, in the waning phase of the counterculture and the onset of the Nixon-era mood of social depletion, and that possibly gave The French Connection the right gilt of nobility to swing its Oscar victory, whilst it was in line with the short-lived affection for gritty fare inaugurated by Midnight Cowboy (1969). Nonetheless, it’s fascinating how little The French Connection is actually about the white powder over which lives and punishing effort are expended. The only user seen in the film is the slick-mouthed long-haired chemist (Pat McDermott) who tests the purity of the imported heroin for a small amount of it. Yet the junk seems indivisible from the snatches of blasted and sorry suburbs of the city, filled with urban decay, cheerless wintry wastelands, and infested with small-time dealers, which Friedkin describes with chilling efficiency throughout. In this vision of a contemporary American metropolis, white cops beat hell out of black dealers in scenes of predatory flushing and catching of the prey, yet there’s a pall of certainty around both sides that they’re both stuck inhabiting the same wilderness, fighting on the level of primitives for the scraps society is casting down their way.

Popeye and his partner Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) have the best arrest record in their department, but they’re all too acutely aware, as their superior Simonson (Eddie Egan) reminds them, that in essence their labours are petty and ineffectual. But then, after a bust that sees Russo get a slice on the arm and the perp (Alan Weeks) angrily knocked about and bullied, the two retire to an up-market tavern for some R’n’R, only for Popeye’s raptor-like eye for criminality to zero in on a gathering of underworld figures out wining and dining their women, including Sal Boca (Tony LoBianco), tossing around money. Popeye talks Russo into following them about, and eventually they’re stunned to find that Sal returns early in the morning to his teenaged wife and a tiny diner business. Popeye is immediately convinced that Sal is connected in some serious fashion, and he’s dead right. Sal is arranging the Stateside end of a massive heroin deal, of junk being supplied from Marseilles by Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), which will be brought into the country inside a Lincoln Continental by French TV star Devereaux (Frederic de Pasquale). Popeye’s convictions are patronised by his senior and by FBI agent Mulderig (Bill Hickman) attached to the case. The past, which involved the accidental shooting of a fellow cop, dogs Popeye as wickedly as the hangovers he nurses each morning after drinking himself stupid. But the team’s work begins to pay off when Charnier and his pet thug Nicoli (Marcel Buzzoffi) arrive in town to make the deal, and they link Sal to Weinstock (Harold Gray), a financier for traffickers, whom Sal is trying to get to invest in the deal.

Although it’s most certainly not a documentary, The French Connection gains a lot of its pep from practically neo-realist elements. Those include the casting of non-professionals like the real-life analogues of Doyle and Russo, Egan and Sonny Grosso, and Irving Abrahams, who plays himself in the car-stripping scene. The immersive vision of a gritty metropolis offers glimpses of men lying sprawled on the pavement, filth-crusted subway tunnels, and camerawork in the street where it’s clear the crowd, constantly glancing at the camera, aren’t extras. The film probably gave Scorsese some permission to explore his city in similar fashion with Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976). The method Friedkin adopted, with his toey but unaffected handheld camerawork in many scenes, lends physical energy to the essentially observational sequences, whether they’re about Doyle and Russo trying to eat whilst freezing their asses off on a surveillance job, or, most memorably, the sequence in which they strip down the Lincoln in which they think the shipment has been hidden, bringing to the fore the amazing amount of empty space in such a seemingly solid car, and the increasing frustration of the cops as they fail to find anything before Russo’s observations about the car’s weight lead to a sudden, successful realisation. A peculiar quality of The French Connection, one that its sequel shares, is that it’s a beautiful-looking film, with Owen Roizman’s photography absorbing colour in variegated patches that come to resemble a Rauschenberg artwork. An arsenal of New Wave tricks, from zoom shots to disjunctive sound and vision, sees the film accumulate in layers, offering an aspect of raggedness that conceals the great filmic talent at work behind it. That talent is clearly at work in the dance of actors and imagery in Popeye and Charnier’s amusing hide and seek in the subway, in the cold-blooded assassination Nicoli commits after the deceptively ambling opening shots (complete with tearing off a hunk of his victim’s bread loaf), and of course at a much higher volume in the chase scene and the violent finale.

The French Connection’s monomaniacal bent in sticking almost purely on the matter at hand is often why it’s been discounted as a simple cop flick by many over the years, and yet I feel it’s precisely there where its greatness lies, in refusing to linger on extraneous detail or pompous presumptions of socio-political and aesthetic import, whilst still concisely evoking them. Early in the film, when Popeye and Russo visit the tavern in which they first make Sal, The Three Degrees, a black girl group, croon lyrics that point neatly to the irony that this generation, sending rockets to the moon, is also the one living in decaying tenements, beating hell out of one-another, and stuffing drugs into its veins. Otherwise the context is simply there to be read, in the lives its heroes lead and those of the villains. Popeye inhabits a boxy little apartment in a grim tower block, and the only pleasures he gets are liquor and sex, at which he’s fortunately adept at getting, as when he picks up a bicycling girl, cueing the film’s lone islet of bawd as Russo, coming to Popeye’s place to talk over a new development in the case, finds him handcuffed to his bed and the girl still darting naked about the flat. But life is otherwise not much fun for these guys, and Friedkin makes a marvellous, almost Chaplin-esque visual suite out of the scenes in which Doyle and Russo try to cram their faces with pizza and terrible coffee whilst Charnier and Nicoli dine in a ritzy restaurant. Whilst Popeye’s behaviour demands tempering empathy for him with wariness of his fiery brutality and racism, here the pendulum shifts his way: you can practically feel Doyle’s white-hot antipathy in Hackman’s grimace as he watches the pair, not only a personal resentment owing to his own working-stiff righteousness, but in the already clearly conceived detestation of people who are getting seriously rich by eating out what’s left the fabric of his city and world.

Daryl F. Zanuck warned Friedkin that if the film wasn’t done right, he’d end up with a glorified The Naked City episode, and Friedkin’s answer to that was to invest Popeye with his voluble ambiguity; by turns, Popeye, with his signature pork pie hat and trenchcoat, is a swashbuckling hero and a scary prick. His maniacal dedication to the case at hand is both his great virtue and great weakness, blind to other matters, whether it be mangled car wreck victims in a scene where he comes to blows with Simonson and Mulderig, and finally accidentally gunning down Mulderig in the finale when he’s chasing Charnier, barely blinking when he and Russo discover the mistake and keeping after the villain. That closing moment is one that Friedkin shoots in the environs of the ruined warehouse where the drug deal was going down, and through which Popeye dashes off, as if he’s disappearing into an existential void in keeping after Charnier, emblem of a world beyond his grasp and comprehension. I suppose it could be said that the great chase sequence that is the film’s centrepiece betrays the texture of the film’s realism, but of course it’s also the bit you look forward to, as the eruptive elegance of Jerry Greenberg’s editing and the brilliant shooting of Friedkin and Roizman converge here for a masterpiece of its kind. The chase starts when Nicoli makes an ill-fated attempt to rub out Doyle, recognising that it’s his drive that is sustaining the threat to the deal. Nicoli instead finishes up plugging a carriage-pushing mother and a railway guard, driving a train driver to have a heart attack, and causing a train wreck, as Doyle all the while chases at high-speed through busy streets in a commandeered car. The hood-mounted camera shots of speeding motion through the streets giving the sequence its sense of hurtling doom, and the sequence resolves with brute frankness as Doyle plugs Nicoli in the back when he tries to run. Other cops objected to this touch, but Egan gave Friedkin the nod to include it: even in adding some pizzazz to the film, the integrity of its unromantic take is retained. Scheider, who was cemented in the cinemagoers’ mind in ’71 with this film and Klute, is terrific even in playing a relative second fiddle. His peerlessly pronounced retort to Mulderig’s comments about his partner, “Shove it up your ass,” is one of the summits of on-screen profanity.

French Connection II seems at superficial attention to announce some unfortunate aspects of Hollywood’s nascent sequel culture: it was the first major Hollywood sequel to have a simple numeric attached to the title, a touch that was in keeping with the film’s veneer of terseness and yet soon to become a signature of corporate Hollywood laziness. It also moves away from the reportage of the original for a fictional continuation, more dialogue-heavy and melodramatic in form. Yet such descriptions are deceptive, as French Connection II is as good as, perhaps better than, the first film. Friedkin, who had moved on to his other best-known movie, The Exorcist (1973), didn’t return for it; instead John Frankenheimer, the solidly established and lauded hand from the precursor generation of new-style American directors, took over. He retained key aspects of the first film’s style, whilst also refining it and making some innovations of his own. It stands as possibly also Frankenheimer’s last truly great film, for a similarity of both his and Friedkin’s careers was their early brilliance and their shaky later oeuvres. A key linking element of the two films, other than Hackman and Rey, is Don Ellis’ nervy, vibrant scoring, accented with elements of jazz, funk, spurts of musique concrete, and even modernist atonal passages that infuse the cityscapes with alien vibes. The sequel picks up spiritually where the original left off, with Doyle still chasing Charnier, having been sent to Marseilles as the only man who can certifiably recognise him, to liaise with the local detective chief Henri Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), who treats him with dismissive contempt and relegates him to a desk next to the men’s room door. Popeye doesn’t realise that he’s actually been sent to lure Charnier out, and, worse, he’s really being set up by other cops back in New York whom Charnier bought off, hoping he’ll get killed.

Inevitably, Popeye is a fish out of water in this world, and scenes in Frankenheimer’s film carefully mirror some in Friedkin’s. This contrasts his earlier behaviour and former competence, as when Popeye chases down a suspect running from the scene of a sabotaged narcotics lab, only for Barthélémy and his men to drag him off, because the guy’s actually an informant, underlining the irrelevance of Popeye’s racial assumptions and his inability to recognise the lay of the land he’s so sensitive to back home. Popeye’s head-on policing style in such a circumstance seems doomed to cause havoc, his signature bullying tactics and verbal tirades are reduced to a comedy routine before a laughing, uncomprehending prisoner, and his declarations of determination to nail Charnier seem like so much empty rhetoric. Alienated by Barthélémy, he instead starts pounding the streets in trying to catch a glimpse of his quarry. One night, after chatting up a beach volleyball player (Reine Prat) and being spied doing so by Charnier, he’s kidnapped by Charnier’s thugs, and one of the tailing policemen Barthélémy has on Popeye is run over and killed. Charnier has Popeye kept prisoner in a seamy hotel filled with drug addicts and prostitutes, and pumped full of regular doses of heroin for three weeks, partly to extract what he knows about Charnier’s new operation, which is nothing, and also in a precisely sadistic vengeance on the most implacable of anti-drug enforcers, reducing him to a robotic dependent. Finally Popeye is given a hot dose and dumped outside the police station, and Barthélémy and doctors fight to save his life.

Frankenheimer, who had worked on French location several times before, uses a mostly French crew, including DOP Claude Renoir. The filmmaking team’s eye for picturesque decay invests Marseille with the same mix of lively affection and squalid authenticity as New York received in the first film, with labyrinthine, rubbish-strewn poor quarters lurking behind the ritzy harbour surrounds. If Friedkin’s film has its roots in the docudrama of ‘50s crime flicks, Frankenheimer’s is closer to genuine film noir, and, in a way, can be seen as a stealing back of that tradition from the New Wavers. Such a perspective is implicit in the way the film offers a deglamourized and peerlessly tangible sense of the locale that anticipates, and possibly laid seeds for, modern French crime films like Un Prophet (2009) much more than it resembles the icy but aestheticised, denaturalised works, from the likes of Godard, Melville, and Chabrol, of the time. There’s as much procedural detail in this sequel as in the original, as Charnier’s innovative new smuggling methods, including in tomato cans and on ship hulls, are carefully depicted, but whereas the first film is to a large extent “about” that detail, here it’s more functional within a cohesive, driving plot. French Connection II is more concerned with exploring Popeye’s gruelling journey and penitential suffering, in being almost destroyed by Charnier and his own arrogance, before resurging with (literally) fiery wrath.

Popeye seems initially like the quintessential ugly American in his insensibility to warnings and blithe indifference to local niceties, as Barthélémy needles him into getting on the street. Popeye begins to adapt, slowly: in a terrific early scene, Popeye strikes out with a couple of local ladies but finds a sort of a pal in a bartender (André Penvern) with whom he gets tanked and reels about the streets with, and his capture by Charnier comes after he’s managed to score with said volleyball player, proving he’s still got his mojo working. Meanwhile Charnier has returned to his piss-elegant lifestyle: dialogue scattered in both films suggests that his actual background, in spite of his mansion and purebred young wife, is in the working class and the docklands. He is arranging a new big shipment now with multinational collusion and finance, with the aid of an American General, Brian (Ed Lauter). With its suggestions of wider conspiracies and higher levels of malfeasance, French Connection II subverts some of the presumptions of the original, becoming in effect a Watergate movie in which Popeye finally finds a better working partnership with the Frogs than he did with his own feds.

Hackman had won the Best Actor Oscar for the first film, a deserving win in a strong year for contenders. But he’s even better – perhaps the best in his career – in the sequel, particularly in the lengthy, grinding scenes in which Barthélémy helps him through going cold turkey, a regimen Barthélémy insists on because it would be the end of Popeye’s career if his state becomes a matter of record. We find out things about Popeye here that explain a lot about him, like the reason for his surprising athleticism – he was once a baseball player who instantly joined the cops when he caught a glimpse of a young Mickey Mantle – as well as his fixated intensity, and the despair within him that addiction reveals rather than causes, previously anaesthetised with booze and work, but given free reign by a junkie’s pathos. Hackman’s opinion of his character was low – “Doyle is a fascist,” he said unequivocally, whilst reporting that cops generally loved the honesty of the portrayal – but his reserve against the character’s stridency and cruelty falls away in the sequel. The central, achingly sustained scene of the film comes when Popeye rambles on to an attentive but largely bewildered Barthélémy, who’s guilty at Popeye’s fate and his own not being able to rescue him. Popeye tries to demonstrate baseball moves with chicken drumstick and orange, in between contortions of withdrawal and desperation, struck through with the impossible need for friends and familiar things in going through hell, in a city that just doesn’t offer them, from hamburgers to people who know who the hell Mickey Mantle is. His stay in the hotel, where he’s visited by an aged English addict (Catherine Nesbitt) who soothingly rambles to him about her own past whilst stealing his watch, has a bleak cul-de-sac of the soul atmosphere to it reminiscent of the boarding house in The Seventh Victim (1943), the perfect place for Popeye to be lost in a haze of his failings as well as heroin.

To a certain extent, this whole narrative movement serves a not dissimilar purpose for Popeye as Indiana Jones’ encounter with the black sleep of the Kalimar in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984): the protagonist, partly defined hitherto by antiheroic traits, goes through an ordeal that makes him look into his dark side, and emerges newly fired up for total war. There’s an implicit approval of Popeye’s reckless style, and yet another message is quite clear, that if he and Barthélémy had worked together properly from the start, his ordeal could have been avoided, and the last act sees the policemen working together in a purposeful unit. The other actor the two films share is of course Rey, who was reportedly accidentally cast in the original when Friedkin requested “that guy from the Bunuel films”, meaning Belle de Jour’s Francisco Rabal, and the casting agent signed up Rey so quickly there was no time to renegotiate. It was a happy accident, if true, because Rey’s excellence is in how utterly un-villainous his Charnier seems, a dapper and affable man about town whose ruthlessness and cleverness are only hinted at in his insolent little wave to Doyle in the first film, and then revealed in the most specific circumstances. His best moment in the sequel comes when Charnier first spots Doyle in Marseilles, acute anxiety charging his features before resuming normal operations, and adopting a cobra-like chilliness when he later interrogates his cop prisoner. Once he recovers, Popeye embarks on a campaign of purification, fending off Barthélémy long enough so that he can track down the hotel himself. Pouring petrol about the place, he sets it ablaze to drive out the denizens like rats, flushes out Charnier’s goons, and releases his now deeply personal sense of grievance and frustration on the only scale that can satisfy it. It’s a typically outsized reaction from Popeye, but it does work: he gets a lead on Charnier’s new deal. He and Barthélémy almost manage to capture a new shipment where it’s being extracted from the hull of a Dutch freighter in a dry dock. But they barely survive an encounter there with Charnier’s new number one henchman, Jacques (Philippe Leotard), who wields a German army machine gun with brutal aplomb and kills Barthélémy’s subordinate Miletto (Charles Millot), before letting the sea into the dry dock.

Popeye saves Barthélémy’s life when he’s knocked out by a falling spar, and the French cop repays the favour by helping Doyle stay, when his superiors want him kicked out of the country, and acting on Doyle’s hunch, watching the Dutch ship’s captain (Raoul Delfosse), who leads them to Jacques. The cops track him back to the warehouse where they’re able to bust the whole of Charnier’s operation. Barthélémy gains some vengeance when he dispatches Jacques, who, trying to escape with some of the drug shipment in a truck, instead crashes into the warehouse doors Barthélémy sets closing: Jacques is hurled out through the windscreen. Meanwhile, Popeye chases Charnier on foot through the city. Amongst the many felicities of his filmmaking, Frankenheimer engenders the visuals with a sense of physical connection to Popeye, painstakingly portraying the delirium and liquid sense of time and care when he’s under the influence, his attempts to get back in shape after he’s recovered. This pays off in the finale’s lengthy foot chase, the modulated soundtrack and the lunging POV shots conveying Popeye’s exhaustion, so that the audience practically share his burning lungs and aching feet. Inevitably, this sequel risks being more prosaic as it finally gives Popeye the closure he sought, and yet there’s still an existentially gruelling aspect to his chase, running without gaining. It finally resolves in one of the sharpest and nastiest comeuppances in movie history, as Charnier, right on the threshold of again cheating Popeye of his prize, hears his cry from the quayside seconds before bullets smack into his body, and Frankenheimer cuts directly to black. The final effect is both satisfying and chilling, and one of the most perfect endings anywhere.

30th 10 - 2011 | 6 comments »

Jaws (1975)

Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

The opening seconds of Jaws are more indelible and memorable than many entire movies: with the lead actors’ names appearing on dense blackness and the sounds of marine animals’ sonic vibrations teeming in the dark, the iconic deep cello throbs of John Williams’ score gives instant, malefic portent to the roving, hungry point-of-view shots sliding through the deep. A jarring cut to a beach party, flavoured with perfect mid-‘70s faux-counterculture indolence, as the rich-kid refugees who make up Amity Island’s seasonal resource party the night away, and the exchange of long hard glances between Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) and Tom Cassidy (Jonathan Filley) presage familiar mating rituals, except that Chrissie, flush with youthful, randy energy, decides to go swimming and leaves the pie-eyed Cassidy on the beach. Chrissie’s swim, of course, becomes not a frolic but a close encounter with a primal force for which a human is just another food source. One touch here that sells the terror of this sad death just as much as the screams and struggling of Chrissie as she’s torn to bits by a monster and cries for the aid of a god who doesn’t answer, is the cutaway to Cassidy lying snoozing on the beach under a Winslow Homer dawn, utterly ignorant of what’s transpiring. Thus commences a drama where complacency and obsession become opposed, destructive forces hemming the conscientious in on both sides.

Now thirty-six years old, Jaws has hardly aged a day. Certainly, aspects of it are very much irremovable from the mid-’70s zeitgeist it both recorded and captivated, and yet the film’s inexorable style and salty screenplay vibrate with a still-fearsome kind of perfection. Jaws is widely regarded as the movie that begat the contemporary blockbuster. That’s only partly true: the first film to follow the template of a studio’s expensive tent-pole production designed to pay for other ventures, based on popular pre-existing material, was actually The Godfather (1972). All Jaws did was tweak the marketing formula. But Jaws did, arguably, introduce a certain hard-charging, pulp narrative attitude, the idea of story as means to motion and special effects as a major creative tool, which had not quite crystallised with such perfection before in Hollywood’s awkward efforts to rebuild its commercial brands after the long interregnum of the ‘60s. And yet Jaws is as distant from the idiocy of the worst modern examples of the blockbuster mentality as The Godfather is from Dick Tracy.

Steven Spielberg’s first huge hit, and still one of his three or four best films, Jaws is flavoured with a perpetually beguiling mixture of old-school writing and cinematic virtues and more modern varieties, facilitated by Spielberg’s particular capacity to meld classical Hollywood and New Wave techniques fluently, from the almost neo-realist use of the small town of Amity, to film school gimmicks, like the famous zoom-in-pull-back shot, that are perfectly contoured into the storytelling, unlike, say, in his contemporary Brian De Palma’s work, where such effects become, in their way, the story. In terms of the genre it most properly belongs to, the horror film, Jaws is a rare hybrid: it’s a monster movie, with elements of action and adventure, political satire, and domestic comedy-drama. Jaws followed hard on the success of The Exorcist (1973) in delving into another, even more deeply phobic subject matter for the mass audience: fear of the deep, of animal terror, of a Jungian unknown, of nature as a raw and careless power. There’s also always been a not entirely accidental link between Jaws’ success and its socio-political moment: it came out as both the Vietnam War and Watergate had entered their final anticlimactic moments, and the film’s themes, of trying to effectively recapture faith in institutions and win a war against a nameless evil in spite of politicians, could hardly have summarised the period mood more acutely.

The ironies of Jaws’ immense popular and aesthetic success proliferate, considering the film’s arduous shoot. As the movie was rushed into production, the script, first penned by Peter Benchley, author of the source novel, had to then be quickly worked over by playwright Howard Sackler, co-star Carl Gottlieb, and Spielberg’s friend John Milius, with contributions from Shaw and Scheider making the cut too. Spielberg, not yet thirty, was already out to regain his footing after his first feature film The Sugarland Express (1974) opened to poor box office on the day cameras started rolling on the new film. It was also a revisit of territory he had staked out with his telemovie Duel (1972), and Jaws in many ways stands in relation to the earlier film like Deep Red (1975) does for Dario Argento and his debut film The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), or The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) does for a few of Hitchcock’s earlier films: a semi-remake with which the director comes firmly of age. Where The Sugarland Express saw the wunderkind filmmaker draw a curtain on the early decade’s beautiful loser mystique, Jaws looks forward to the reasserted centrism of the ‘80s, in following essentially Everyman protagonist Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) as he contends with the obstructive realities of his society, and then far more primeval and urgent dangers.

Whereas in Benchley’s novel, crammed with bestseller elements the film thankfully mostly divests, the political subplot has overt underworld links, the film rather portrays the clash of intent between Brody and the town’s mayor, and major real estate figure Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), on a more humdrum, if no less urgent, level, pitting concerns of safety against prosperity, reconfiguring Watergate-era political paranoia from outlandish conspiracies into something more realistic and recognisable, capturing a perpetual schism in modern American (and elsewhere) political life: to a certain extent, contemporary environmental debate is only this one writ large. Contributing to the early outlay of social dimensions is the swiftly sketched yet firm portrait of Brody and his family as refugees from New York, and their discomfort with negotiating the clannishness and rigged decks of Amity islanders. Casting Scheider, later invariably associated with this part, nonetheless plays on his casting in The French Connection (1971) and that film’s pop-culture cache as a portrait of urban rot, as Jaws points out that things aren’t necessarily easier out in the sticks, as the Brodys discover, in having traced the wagon routes of white flight, that the bucolic surf and sea can cover up dread dangers that make muggers look homey.

The first half-hour of Jaws is a little whirlwind of exposition and tension-building, introducing Brody, wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary), and sons Michael (Chris Rebello) and Sean (Jay Mello) in their domestic muddles, and Brody at work, where the usual business of his job is today exemplified by contending with the petty complaints of shopkeepers about rambunctious kids. Brody snaps into action when he and his deputy Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer) discover Chrissie’s remains on the beach, entangled with seaweeds and fed on by crabs. Social tension creeps in ineluctably, where the town’s parasitic relationship with the rich summer folk is threatened by the more immediate kind of predatory behaviour going on in the surf. Vaughn and his clique, catching him on the car ferry he commandeers to call in a bunch of boy scouts, corner Brody in a situation where he’s doubly unsure of himself, being as he is as uneasy on the water as he is in negotiating small-town politics. Previously certified fact is reconfigured to suit the requirements of a well-oiled machine, as Vaughn, in his slick and ingratiating fashion, gives a quick lesson in the power of words – “You shout ‘barracuda’, everybody goes, ‘Huh? What?’” – and the arts of spin.

Brody’s acquiescence to a minor cover-up is uneasy but understandable, as no-one really expects the lightning-strike moment to repeat, but Brody keeps his eyes peeled and becomes witness to a second attack, when Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is consumed before a busy beach. Here, the little gems that coalesce character and story continue with Spielberg’s editing and shooting particularly keen – Ellen being told that she’ll “never, never” be an islander by local matron Mrs Taft (Fritzi Jane Courtney), as the chief is made fun of by Harry Wiseman (Walter Hooper) for his refusal to go near the water, and vignettes so casual they seem snapped by a weekend cameraman, from Sean building sandcastles to a young man playing with his dog, and Alex’s mother (Lee Fierro) fretting over his pruning fingers. It’s only when the dog vanishes that the lurking presence is suggested, and by then it’s too late.

The singularly grim fate of Alex, and the image of his mother darting along the sands in panicked realisation that her son is the one missing from the pack, provides even more voluble emotional heft to what follows, and it also provides a cold-blooded twist to genre niceties, following up the familiar death of the sexually available young woman with the taboo annihilation of youthful innocence. The point, that the lurking death and terror respects no human laws, offsets the continuing, desperate attempt by the community to keep business operating as usual, shark-like itself in that it has to keep moving or die. Whilst many films of the era made political or business malfeasance a background enemy (eg The Towering Inferno, 1974), the question gains almost Ibsen-esque ramifications in Jaws through this coherent twinning, and because of Brody’s sense of culpability, which comes to a head when Mrs Kintner gives him a slap in the face for failing in his responsibility, a guilt Vaughn tries to relieve him of but one which he still holds close to his heart. Brody’s overwhelming sense of responsibility then becomes the core human value that holds the drama together. One of the strongest and yet least analysed Spielberg motifs, first embodied by Brody, is that of the burden of a duty of care, and the corruption and cleansing of the institutions that take up that duty, as individuals are forced to question their fortitude and values in relation to protecting others. There’s also classic movie myth working here: Brody invokes not only the “enemy of the people” in Ibsen’s play but also Gary Cooper’s Marshall Kane in High Noon (1952), destined to head off to his own death-duel with a deadly foe, except that Brody does actually get some help, in the form of ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and grizzled WW2 vet and professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). As well as the seriousness with which he takes his job, Brody’s fear of the water ironically makes him the most sensitive barometer of the shark’s presence, and its most genuine nemesis, as he senses the menace that lurks underneath the pristine seas everyone else has turned into a playground.

Of course, the social conflict of Jaws is an adjunct to the real drama of first trying to save people from the beast and then going out to fight it in its own turf, as Brody browbeats Vaughn in letting him hire Quint, and they and Hooper head out to sea in Quint’s boat, the Orca, turning from Ibsen to Melville. Thanks to the notorious difficulties in getting Bob Mattey’s mechanical shark to work properly, Spielberg was forced to sustain the opening scene’s tactic of not showing the monster much longer than originally intended, an idea that fortunately deepened the tension and mystery immeasurably. Proofs and hints of the beast’s incredible strength and savagery are employed, from Hendricks, upon finding Chrissie’s remains, first whistling urgently for Brody and Cassidy to come running before collapsing in a sickly heap, to the two idiots who try catch it with a bait chained to a dock which it then pulls apart, and the huge tooth Hooper finds in the hull of the boat of local fisherman Ben Gardner, whose severed head then bobs out to give Hooper the fright of his life so far. Hooper’s own horror of seeing Chrissie’s remains inspires a memorable harangue, after he enters the film radiating good-humour but also a rock-steady professionalism, providing an immediate counterpoint to not only the obfuscation of the Amity locals, but also the bullying of the fishermen who haul a Tiger shark out of the sea after a chaotic fishing jamboree. Vaughn and coterie are happy to pass this off as the killer, but Hooper almost immediately proves that it isn’t, commencing another build-up to tragedy.

A large part of what makes Jaws work, and indeed almost unique in this sort of film, is the sheer overflowing sense of life it gives off. As in The Sugarland Express and again in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and 1941 (1979), the younger Spielberg’s view of American life as a kind of carnival of eccentricity and magnanimity blended with aggression and corruption is in constant evidence. Such attentiveness, offsetting Spielberg’s overt gamesmanship and Movie Brat intuitiveness, extends from the gabbling, arguing businesspeople and selectmen at the town hall meeting, to the flurry of yahoos out to catch the shark and receive Mrs Kintner’s $3000 bounty. The montage of the arrival of the July 4th crowds, scored by Williams with a semi-ironic baroque elegance, sees the processional of tourists of all stripes disgorged by ferries to cram hot dogs and ice cream in their faces and lounge on the beach, whilst Brody and Hooper work frantically to put together a force to protect them. Another aspect of the film is its rich sense of humour, which in many ways operates not dissimilarly to An American Werewolf in London, as comedy is carefully employed to not only offset tension but contribute, and to deepen character and milieu. Co-screenwriter Gottlieb was rightly proud of one of the film’s most effective moments, that of the shark’s first appearance, coming right on the tail of a funny line. Before I traded in old VHS recordings for DVDs, for a very long time the copy I had of this film on tape was actually an American network TV cut, with several sequences that I can never not consider part of the movie proper (on DVD as deleted scenes), including the hilarious moment of Quint bugging a clarinet-playing kid in the music store where he buys piano wire for fishing, and Hooper raving about his nympho former girlfriend’s phone bill. Both moments give more substance to these characters in giving a glimpse of them beyond the parameters of the immediate drama. But even without these, there’s a tangible sense of actuality to the characters without which the film would be just another shaggy dog yarn.

Spielberg’s prodigious, metamorphic sense of cinematic form is in constant evidence throughout Jaws, but it’s also one of the few films where his specific influences seem close to the surface: from shots that quote ‘50s monster movies like The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953) and The Monster that Challenged the World (1957), and more serious works, with a sense of detail and Yankee maritime flavour redolent of John Huston’s adaptation of Moby Dick (1956), whilst the film’s general aesthetic owes a tremendous amount to Hitchcock in general and The Birds (1963) in particular, through utilising an overwhelming sense of sea and space for claustrophobic ends. For all the moments of overt fright-mongering like, truth be told, the slightly cheesy scare of Gardner’s head, there are few moments as chilling in movie history as that in which Quint’s fishing line first begins to tick, something having taken the bait, but just what still a mystery as Quint silently begins to prepare himself for the fight. Likewise the spirit of Val Lewton and his team hovers approvingly over much of the early action, sustaining as it does a similar aesthetic to much of Lewton’s work before the shark becomes a more overt menace in the film’s final phases. Chrissie’s death has a frisson intuitively similar to the anecdote Jacques Tourneur cited as the inspiration of Cat People’s (1942) pool scene, when he almost drowned when swimming alone at night. Spielberg was given a technical crew of tremendous experience, including cinematographer Bill Butler and editor Verna Fields, and he shied away from working with them again as word was spread around Hollywood that they had been responsible for saving the film. Nonetheless, their work is impeccable. The style is rarely showy, and yet there’s tremendous kinetic force in it, through such barely noticeable yet powerful gimmicks like the edits that sustain Brody’s point of view in the first beach attack scene, and the panning zoom shots of Brody moving through the beach crowd when responding to a shark sighting, repeated with Ellen when she leaves him at the Orca’s dock, entwining the couple with a visually manifested anxiety.

The domestic, sentimental side of Spielberg emerges in the naturalistic yet concise scenes of Brody and his family. The dinner table scene that follows Brody’s humiliation by Mrs Kintner is in many ways the heart of the film, where Sean imitates Brody in a fashion immediately familiar to parents the world over, and Brody’s sense of guilt and regret over Alex’s death, and the way his son encapsulates everything he stands for, informs his semi-drunk sentimentalism. It’s a scene that radiates outward through almost everything Spielberg has made. The arrival of Hooper shifts gears as a friendship begins to bloom, and Brody gets specifically liquored up to go out and take a look in the Tiger shark’s gut. It’s as finely crafted a piece of writing, acting, and directing as anything in American cinema. Just as good is the lengthy scene of male bonding aboard the Orca, where Hooper and Quint display bodily scars from their rugged lifestyles whilst Brody, in a casual moment that never fails to crack me up, can only consider his appendix scar, in spite of the fact that he’s the one who has perhaps most often put body and soul on the line in his working life. The mood and dramatic tension here shifts as lightly as a butterfly, from a virtual holiday booze-up to a sense of eerie isolation as Quint recounts the horrors of his experience of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, and whale song echoes sonorously up from the deep, before the shark returns to visit and bashes at the hull as if to remind the humans that they’re still on his playing field. Quint’s disquieting monologue in this scene demanded the labour of all those writers, indicating its crucial import for the story’s depth. What’s really sad is that today neither these wonderful scenes would be included as a matter of course in a modern Hollywood film of this type.

Hooper and Quint form with Brody a triangle of divergent temperaments and life experiences, even as they dedicate themselves to the same quest of finding and killing the shark. Brody, Hooper, a rich kid (“How much?” “What, personally or the whole family?”), and Quint, an emotionally scarred WW2 vet (“You’ve got city hands, Mr Hooper. You’ve been counting money all your life.”) come to seem like the American national superego arguing with itself whilst trapped in a small boat, moving from quarrel to camaraderie and back again. Vietnam overtones resurge in considering the film’s final third, with Quint as the arbiter of old-school war-craft and dominant machismo, Hooper as the technological agent with a touch of the gentleman hippie to him, both of whom ultimately fail to bring the beast down, getting one of them killed and the other very nearly. For one passage, however, that in which Quint has the scent and the boys finally give chase to the shark that seems at last in their grasp, there’s a sense of high-flying joy in the battle, a joy that however soon curdles as the shark, responding to the Orca as a rival predator, begins to fight back.

Complicating the issue is the fact that Quint is several cans short of the proverbial, waging his private war against the species based in his Indianapolis experiences, an event tied to an earlier conflict and the commencement of American hegemony (“Anyway…we delivered the Bomb.”), and Quint grinds his boat to pieces in his refusal to swerve or change tactics in dealing with an enemy far cleverer than he expects, thus reproducing in many essentials the failure of the American war machine against the Viet Minh. In such a fashion, whilst Jaws is certainly based on Benchley’s book, it seems to channel more effectively the spirit of Norman Mailer’s Why Are We In Vietnam?, which likewise portrays a crisis of American bullish spirit on a Melvillian hunt as a ticket to understanding the underlying obsessiveness of that war. Quint also evokes another classic Western character, Red River’s Thomas Dunson, as a deathless portrait of alpha male hysteria: Quint’s machismo and relentlessness finally prove self-destructive. Shaw’s performance, much like Daniel Day-Lewis’ in Gangs of New York (2002), sustains a note of actorly high-wire daring in trying to render a character who seems a remnant of a pre-modern age in terms that are both palpably grandiose yet also still emotionally bodied, a kind of realistic-grotesque. Hooper’s attempts to use a cage and poisoned spar against the monster likewise flop as the shark smashes the cage open and tries to pick out Hooper like the innards of a walnut. Unlike in the book, he survives, as the shark gets caught in the cage’s suspension and struggles to free itself, a showcase for the real-life footage taken by Ron and Valerie Taylor.

At last, as political, social, even personal concerns fall away, Jaws boils down to one of the most elemental dramatic situations imaginable, and therefore the most resonant, as Quint is finally consumed by his living animus, and Brody is left alone with the shark. Quint’s death, whilst the shark is showing its origins a bit too much at this point, is nonetheless a remarkably visceral moment, perhaps the most vicious in any Spielberg film, as the shark crushes the life out of Quint with screams that shake the world and his mouth spouts a fountain of blood, even as he hacks at his nemesis with a machete until the last breath. The fate which the young Quint was permanently fixated by at last catches up with him, and to a certain extent he brought it on himself. Brody, on the other hand, becomes Saint George with an M-1, forced to face the dragon and overcome it with smarts and raw skill and survival at stake. Brody’s final whoop of joy when he at last dispatches the animal right on the edge of his own death possesses a tinge of irony: Brody can’t believe his harebrained last-ditch plan has actually worked. When he and Hooper swim back to shore, seen struggling onto the beach as the end credits role, Brody does it not just as a man who won, but as virtual redeemer for his kind of man, the man in the middle, the man doing his job. Whilst no deity reached down to save Chrissie, Brody becomes the first of Spielberg’s many righteous avengers.

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