From 2004 through 2007, “We Used to Be Friends,” the dreamy, edgy song performed by the Dandy Warhols, opened “Veronica Mars,” a television series that created such a loyal following that it survived low ratings to last three seasons and encouraged more than 91,500 people to contribute to a Kickstarter campaign so successful that we now have a movie based on the series. What was it about this series that had people of all ages and backgrounds—including me—glued to the tube each week?
The series, which featured Kristen Bell as the title teenage gumshoe, was much more than the updated Nancy Drew or straight-playing “Twin Peaks” it seemed to be. Its essence was noir, with corruption at the heart of its original through-story of Veronica’s investigation into the murder of her best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), in the fictional town of Neptune, California, a playground for the rich and famous with a soft underbelly reminiscent of the Los Angeles of Chinatown (1974). Veronica, daughter of ex-sheriff and current P.I. Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), ran in the rarefied circles of Neptune’s power elite, but remained a resolute outsider by dint of her lowly financial status and exposure to the ruinous power of wealth and influence as exemplified by the campaign of the 1% to run her dad out of office for daring to come after one of their own. Many fans of the series believe, in the words of the Film Noir Foundation, that “it’s a bitter little world,” and despite the futility, it still felt good to see our wry, savvy antiheroine act like Sam Spade: “When a (girl’s best friend) is killed, (s)he’s supposed to do something about it.” We thrilled, too, that like Spade, she fell like a ton of bricks for the wrong person—troubled rich kid Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring)—possessive, violently protective, and oh so sexy.
When the series ended, it seemed like Veronica had put her demons behind her and followed her father’s advice to get out of the cesspool of Neptune and make a normal life for herself. The movie picks up at the point where Veronica, a recent law school graduate, is interviewing for a job at a top New York law firm and living with Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell), her kind-of boyfriend during her undergraduate days at Hearst College. A high-profile murder in Neptune grabs her attention—pop singer Bonnie DeVille (Andrea Estella), nee Carrie Bishop of Neptune, Logan’s girlfriend, is found electrocuted in her bathtub, and Logan stands accused of murdering her. One text from Logan that he needs her has Veronica on the first plane out, assuring understanding Piz that she will be there only a couple of days to help him choose a defense attorney.
Logan, now an officer in the U.S. Navy, greets Veronica at the airport wearing his dress whites. She is dazzled and says, “You should always wear that,” but as they say, love is blind—the uniform fits him like a laundry bag and makes him look like the prototypical pencil-necked geek. How he managed to maintain a relationship with a junkie pop star while in the Navy is beyond me, but thankfully, he wears civvies for the rest of the film and seems to have been able to make bail—he is filthy rich, after all. This series’ version of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Scooby gang—computer geek Mac (Tina Majorino), gofer/buddy Wallace (Percy Daggs III), and Latino tough Weevil (Francis Capra)—have all grown up into responsible adult positions, with Mac making a very nice living in IT, Wallace a school teacher at their former high school, and Weevil a married man and doting father.
Veronica Mars is a solid, if unremarkable film whose hole-filled scenario is, as Rod pointed out about the plot of another noir, The Big Sleep (1946), rather beside the point. What fans of the series and viewers of the film will most enjoy is a chance to visit with or revisit some beloved characters indelibly created by the prodigious talent of the actors who played them, their acting chops better than ever, and especially the incredible chemistry between Bell and Dohring and the close relationship Veronica has with her father.
Veronica gets drawn back into her former life and her former love, reflecting in the noirish voiceover narration that peppers the film that she is an addict of sorts of both. But then, the script doesn’t make Veronica’s law career seem very exciting. When she interviews with attorney Gayle Buckley (Jamie Lee Curtis), she is told that the firm tries to keep its corporate clients out of court as much as possible—so, in fact, if Veronica takes the job, she will be spending her days literally settling. Once she’s caught up in the adrenaline rush of the investigation to exonerate Logan, she knows that all she really wants to do is get people—the bad guys—into court. Working as she did in high school, investigating her classmates who may have graduated from smaller stuff like test rigging and cyberbullying to actual murder while her father investigates even more grown-up stuff like systemic corruption in the police department, is just like old times.
Yet Veronica’s quest for a safe and normal life seems to have changed her, made her more vulnerable. While still verbally quick, she has slowed down a bit, preferring direct actions like punching a bitchy former classmate to cutting her with her rapier wit—then again, this scene plays like a rip-off of the Indiana Jones and the Arab swordsman scene. A more genuine moment shows Veronica hiding from a killer, panting with terror and thinking as fast as she can for a way to save herself while obviously flailing at the unexpectedness of her plight. The scene is beautifully choreographed and builds tension that the film sustains to the end. The film is also ably aided by its moody look and a soundtrack as edgy and dreamy as its theme song.
One change from the TV series to the movie is Veronica’s heavy use of her smartphone. I thought this was natural for someone well versed in the use of surveillance equipment and an early adopter of new technology, and yet, Veronica seemed to be the only person glued to the screen in her hand. She happens to appear in Neptune the weekend of her 10th high school reunion and is dragged there by the Scoobys. As if by some time-travel miracle, virtually no one was checking their phone every few minutes or texting someone. A crucial plot twist shows a similar stupidity about the power in everyone’s hands these days, though we could possibly blame drugs and alcohol for this particular lapse. Similarly, the Neptune police seem not to have given much thought to the audio/video capabilities of cellphones and are repeatedly recorded doing things they oughtn’t, including unprovoked violence against some defenseless teens. Viewing this film on the heels of seeing the footage from Ferguson, Mo., was a truly eerie experience.
Still, the main event is Veronica and Logan. Their mutual attraction burns a hole through every scene they share, though Logan keeps a gentlemanly distance, even when he is blindsided and momentarily made jealous by Piz’s appearance at the reunion. A flash of his old protectiveness goes overboard when the reunion committee decides to humiliate Veronica by projecting an old sex tape of her. His rage precipitates the equivalent of a barroom brawl from a creaky Western, a truly shoddy piece of comedy that undercuts the Veronica Mars vibe. While this display from Logan would have sent the Veronica of old packing, the more vulnerable version may actually feel the need for a man who can mix it up, and when he saves her father from an attempt on his life, he becomes plainly irresistible. I have read some criticism of this relationship that it supposedly reinforces the idea that women are looking for sexy bad boys when they should be attracted to nice guys. Of course, it’s ridiculous and futile to tell hearts and genitals what they should want, but in fact, Veronica is a bad girl and thus a perfect match for Logan.
Most fans of the series are crazy about Weevil, and I was disappointed that this complex character had so little to do and ended the film on a note that seemed all wrong. Daggs, also a fan favorite, is just as good in the movie, but again, has little to do. Colantoni is a veteran actor whose presence is felt in any project in which he appears. In Veronica Mars, he is every bit the sympathetic dad and quietly persistent private eye he was in the series, and he and Bell continue as one of the best fictional father/daughter duos anywhere; his joy at being surprised by Veronica’s sudden appearance at his office is a delightful and truthful moment. While Bell has maintained an active career on television, neither she nor the inexplicably lesser-seen Dohring has ever made the impact they did with “Veronica Mars.”
In the end, this pastiche of filmic styles takes it final cue from Casablanca (1942). In their version of “We’ll always have Paris,” Logan and Veronica repeat some words from the series:
I thought our story was epic, you know, you and me. Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, bloodshed. EPIC.
As Logan heads back to the Navy, Veronica goes back to being a gumshoe, apparently with the Scoobys back by her side fighting the bad guys, as though listening to the words of Victor Laszlo: “Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.”
It might seem like a leap from the earthbound historicism of The Sea Hawk to the second instalment of a 1980s TV-derived scifi franchise, and yet they’re both, essentially, pirate movies. Lately, pondering the synergy of elements necessary to create great adventure films, I had to admit that, in revisiting Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (the numerical was added after initial release), I saw it has just about all of them: wonder, action, character, myth, darkness, depth of concept and execution, originality and also noble cliché, a sense of fun, and a sense of legacy, both future and historical.
Gene Roddenberry’s adored TV series “Star Trek”, which ran from 1966 to 1968, ironically became a much bigger hit after cancellation, through syndication showings in the ’70s. The show possessed a ragged, trippy, perfervid energy and channelled scifi’s essential creeds and some fresh ideas into some generically familiar archetypes, stereotypes, and situations—not for nothing did Roddenberry label it “‘Wagon Train’ in space” when pitching it to execs. It survived in part because it channelled a post-counterculture hunger for New Age ideals and inclusivity into a futuristic context, and resulted in the birth of the Trekkie, still the emblematic scifi fan of a strong and obsessive breed. So strong was the series’ belated following that an animated series resulted, and then a push for a movie edition, which reached fruition after the success of Star Wars (1977). The initial result, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), directed by that sturdiest of old pros, Robert Wise, modelled itself after the show’s more inquisitive episodes, whilst pinching liberally from Arthur C. Clarke. Wise’s sense of visual grandeur and the probing script partly made up for a stiff reintroduction for the old cast and a weak grip for the series’ familiar human element. The general feeling was that the result was a flabby disappointment. Roddenberry’s fussy creative control got the blame, and it’s clear in retrospect that he was trying to revive his creation with a tone anticipatory of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994), which, with its ponderously plastic air and drones for heroes, was still similarly curious in its best moments. The Motion Picture made enough money to warrant a sequel, but for the second spin around the galaxy, producer Harve Bennett hired a fresher director with a zippier understanding of the underpinnings of such feverishly followed cult works.
Nicholas Meyer started off as a writer, with the likes of the campy comedy Invasion of the Bee Girls (1972) and the novel The Seven-Percent-Solution, adapted by Herbert Ross for the screen in 1976, before he made a directorial debut with Time After Time (1979). Meyer revealed a grasp on the minutiae of figures like Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells, and understood the curious nostalgia that resided within the survival of those characters, revelling in the ironic contrast between the Victorian sensibility that spawned them and the modern perspective on their charm—a sensibility that was ironically similar to the inner, fantastical spirit of Star Trek. Certainly, the catchphrases of Star Trek, like Spock’s “Fascinating,” were becoming as specific as Holmes’ “Elementary,” and Meyer understood that. Meyer responded to his new job by going to school on the original series to carefully recreate its essentials, and did an uncredited overhaul on Jack B. Sowards’ script. The Wrath of Khan was perhaps the first film to provide a nominal sequel to a TV episode, 1967’s “Space Seed,” in which Ricardo Montalban had guest-starred as Khan, a genetically engineered superman exiled centuries before from Earth with his followers, who, when salvaged by the Enterprise on its five-year mission, tried to take it over. They were defeated and left to start a colony on a new planet. Whilst such continuity tickled series fans, having seen “Space Seed” was in no way necessary to understanding the plot of the movie. Indeed, it was slightly confusing, as Khan had never met Enterprise crewman Chekhov (Walter Koenig, who joined the old show after “Space Seed”) but recognises him here. Khan was reconstituted in the film as a phantom from the past of James T. Kirk (William Shatner) who emerges to torture and terrorise him precisely as he’s looking down the barrel of a dull and barren middle age, his swashbuckling days as a space captain behind him.
The Wrath of Khan is today often beloved for its moments of unfettered camp, and yet it’s actually a deftly balanced work: warm, funny, dashing, often tongue-in-cheek, and yet emotionally and intellectually quite earnest, filled with lush, spacious imagery and well-paced action. It’s a film that manages to do many different sorts of thing at once, and for very good reason, it’s become a kind of code word for a movie series highpoint. Meyer gave Wise’s stately approach a kick in the pants, and whilst the same elements of wonder and speculative intelligence that The Motion Picture belaboured are still in evidence, here they’re carefully dovetailed with the onrush of a plot that’s more than a little like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World(2003) in space.
Meyer’s most personal and effective touch was to remake Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForrest Kelly) into men reminiscent of his earlier takes on Holmes and Wells. They are men out of their time, aware of retro paraphernalia and culture, offering a continuity with the geeks of Earth past, and possessed of an energy and idealism that’s all the more vital in a future world. The film’s very opening depicts one of Kirk’s prize pupils, Saavik (a pre-Cheers Kirstie Alley), a humourless Vulcan neophyte who nettles under the painful lesson of the “Kobayashi Maru,” a test that places potential officers in a situation where they have to find their grace under the imminent inevitability of death. As well as offering up a memorable fillip of series lore, the fact that Kirk administers the test which he himself successfully subverted in his student days presents a thematic echo that rings out through the rest of the story up to its tragic climax. Kirk, with his recurring refusal to believe in the kind of no-win scenarios the test prescribes, must face the real cost of such a situation.
Meanwhile, Chekhov, working under Captain Terell (the late, great Paul Winfield) aboard the Reliant, is searching for a lifeless planet to conduct a vast new scientific experiment with the fantastic new Genesis Device. Beaming upon a planet they believe to be the lifeless Ceti Alpha 6, they fall into the hands of Khan and his fellow survivors, who had been left to form a colony on that planet’s neighbour by Kirk: the planet is, in fact, their former Eden, laid waste by cosmic calamity, and they have only just clung to existence. Now mad for vengeance for the suffering of their exile and the deaths of his wife and several crew from attacks by native animals, Khan takes control of Chekhov and Terell with brain-infesting slugs and sets out to trap Kirk and take control of the Genesis Device. The device has been developed by scientist Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), her son David (Merritt Butrick), and a team of researchers on a space station neighbouring the lifeless moon of Regula 1. The device is an incredibly powerful mechanism with the capacity to reshape planets into life-supporting spheres, albeit with the caveat that any life that exists there already would be obliterated, thus making it a work of terraforming wonder that could also be a terrible weapon. David is paranoid about possible military uses of the Device and interference by the Federation, and when Chekhov, under Khan’s control, messages the station ordering the Device to be handed over, pretending the order comes from Kirk, that paranoia seems justified. Carol tries to contact Kirk to demand an explanation, but her message fades out. The Enterprise, on a training mission for the young recruits, heads to Regula 1 to see what’s going on, only to fly headlong into Khan’s ambush.
The Wrath of Khan‘s reduced budget impacted the quality of production noticeably, as the film littered with rather pasteboard-looking sets and props. There are some clunker line readings redolent of a rushed shoot, and Khan’s crew, all strangely much younger than him, look like escapees from a futuristic roller disco musical. But that’s all part of the fun, and otherwise, the film retains the polished look of an A-grade saga. The film’s colour is fleshy and colourful in an aptly pulpy fashion, thanks to Gayne Rescher’s photography. The special effects were done by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic outfit, and included a ground-breaking use of computer-generated imagery for the demonstration film of the Genesis Device’s purpose. The effects are very uneven, and yet still possess an epic lustre. I can’t help but admire the suspense Meyer can wring out of scenes of grim-looking crewmen marching about with what look like vibrators with light globes attached: god knows what they’re going to do with them, but damn if doesn’t look important. Similarly, it’s fascinating how poetic the moment in which Carol brings Kirk into the cavern transformed into a paradise by the Genesis Device is, in spite of the obvious matte paintings, in a way that still dwarfs all the CGI landscapes of Avatar (2009). Much of the film’s impact, it has to be said, is due to composer James Horner, who two years earlier had been working on Roger Corman quickies before he gained notice for his mock-epic work on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). Horner’s soaring, seafarer-like score permeates The Wrath of Khan with a sense of galloping excitement and swooning awe in such moments as the Enterprise’s sailing out from it space dry dock and Kirk’s first glimpse of the Genesis cave.
Whilst the series’ egalitarian, progressive ideals were certainly heartfelt, “Star Trek” simultaneously always sustained an element of retrograde, imperialist thinking in its assumptions, with a future universe where political stability is enforced by gunboat diplomacy. Khan’s name emphasises this aspect. Rather than revise the discrepancy, Meyer emphasises links with Victorian drama and an imperialist adventuring tradition. Kirk and Khan constantly quote favourite novels, Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities respectively, whilst the story and visuals make reference to a charming retention of seafaring codes in space. The Federation uniforms (redesigned from the hideous things sported in The Motion Picture) make the crew look awfully like Redcoats, and a crewwoman blows a futuristic version of a midshipman’s whistle when Kirk first boards the Enterprise. Simultaneously, The Wrath of Khan does something the series, with its limited budget and effects, and episodic style, could never do properly, which was offer, at last, a genuine space battle.
So perfectly does The Wrath of Khan lay out a form of a swashbuckler that the number of similarities in plot and theme between it and Master and Commander demand a few moments to list. In both, the heroes fight off a superior enemy who gets the jump on them in an initial ambush. The emphasis on the battle of wits between captains is all-important. Spock and McCoy are to Kirk as Maturin is to Aubrey, presenting the schism of man of action and man of thought in the context of the supposedly well-oiled machine of these ships of war. The Genesis Device and resulting planet are equivalent to the Galapagos Islands as cradles of wonderment and new potential that excite that scientific mind, a mind which is stifled in being merely obeisant to militaristic exigencies. In both, the physical maiming of a younger crew member is a major tragedy and spur to action. An ambush is facilitated through one ship pretending to be another: Aubrey’s ploy of disguising his ship as a whaler contrasts Khan’s use of a captured Federation ship to sucker in Kirk. Major acts of sacrifice are required to save the heroes’ ship: Spock’s fatal venturing into the reactor to repower the Enterprise matches Hollum’s suicide in belief he’s the Jonah that haunts his ship, and Aubrey’s hacking free a fallen mast, though its means a man must drown.
In spite of its interludes of cheese, The Wrath of Khan builds story and character with a novelistic intelligence, as individual scenes that often seem discursive and casual actually contribute to the thematic imperatives of the tale. The opening joke, where the revelation that the chaos that engulfs Saavik’s captaincy is, in fact, the Kobayashi Maru test—McCoy, sprawled on the floor, demands praise for his performance—will inexorably lead to a moment where such chaos erupts for real around Kirk. He’s the only candidate who ever beat the test, and did so by creative cheating, and, of course, has to stare down the barrel of exactly the situation it was supposed to depict. Mortality is already weighing on Kirk’s mind at the outset, as it’s his birthday. Spock’s and McCoy’s birthday presents to the aging admiral are both antiques for his collection, a leather-bound copy of A Tale of Two Cities and a pair of ancient reading spectacles, apt for Kirk’s retro sensibility, but also reminding him of the march of years. The film actually lets us see Kirk’s apartment in San Francisco, as McCoy breaks out a bottle of illegal Romulan ale—that’s the sort of throwaway touch that I love and that gives this phase in the franchise real personality. McCoy warns him against letting himself become an antique, too, and to get back to captaining, not training callow recruits.
Saavik is posited as a potential love interest for Kirk: she tries to flirt with him whilst trying to understand the purpose of the Kobayashi Maru test, but proves fatally unreceptive to his sense of humour. But she’s also a potential replacement for both him and Spock, an heir to both their legacies. Carol, Kirk’s former lover, and David, actually his son, albeit one he’s barely had any contact with before, present shades of alternative lives he gave up in his love for gallivanting through space, and give immediate, personal flesh to the film’s recurring motifs of existence as a chain of creation and destruction, birth and death. In spite of the futuristic setting, The Wrath of Khan feels intimately contemporary to the early ’80s, as David’s outright contempt and suspicion for Kirk and the Federation channels obvious hints of the ’60s Generation Gap, whilst Carol’s decision to keep David in her world suggests the impact of feminism and new parenting options, leaving alpha male Kirk in a slightly befuddled mid-life crisis.
Meanwhile, the extraordinary potential of the Genesis Device seems to invoke all of the characters’ essential quandaries and capacities, promising both apocalyptic destruction and miraculous creation. Carol, to cheer up Kirk when he’s feeling depressed about the carnage that’s struck his ship and his son’s ferocious antipathy for what he stands for, ushers him along to take stock of a miracle: the grand cave within the Regular moon that she’s turned into a slice of Eden with the Genesis Device, her gift of maternal beneficence to all. Spock and McCoy, upon first learning of the Device’s existence, swing immediately into one of their classic ethical debates. Spock’s coolly measured curiosity striking sparks against McCoy’s fiery, knee-jerk humanism. McCoy mocks the Genesis Device by channelling advertising speak: “According to myth, God created the Earth in six days. Now watch out! Here comes Genesis! We’ll do it for you in six minutes!’ The thematic conflict of the human and the destructive is even acted out on the level of the canonical texts that preoccupy the characters—the shamanistic nihilism of Moby-Dick and the humanistic idealism and sacrifice that defines A Tale of Two Cities. Spock is, of course, the tragic hero, the Sidney Carton of The Wrath of Khan. His logical and unemotive persona, which McCoy always assumes to be inimical to humane concerns, proves, as Kirk croaks in delivering a eulogy for his dead friend, redolent of the most human soul. Spock, now actually the captain of the Enterprise, hands over command to Kirk without concern when crisis is nigh, reminding his reluctant friend that “You proceed from a false assumption—I have no ego to bruise,” and giving Kirk exactly what everyone knows he needs at the same time. Spock becomes the paragon of selfless action and finds his fulfilment of logic in the act of giving his life to save the Enterprise’s crew from certain destruction.
Spock’s achievement of a kind of transcendence paves the way for a resurrection (though Nimoy was actually hoping to jump ship permanently), befitting his new status as demigod. He thus fulfils the religious imagery that he’s been associated with since the first film, which found him engaged in a rite to cleanse himself of feeling in primal landscape. Spock’s nirvana overtly contrasts Khan’s failed attempt to become the Destroyer of Worlds. Khan, genetically engineered and clearly associated with a remnant spirit of Nazi eugenics and an accompanying übermensch mentality, his own constantly stated superiority itself is a kind of godhead for his supporters—“Yours is a Superior Intellect,” as their salute to him goes, and one which his lieutenant Joachim can’t quite complete in dying as both salute and curse—proves weakened by exactly the egotism that Spock resists. Khan’s ruthless intelligence proves constantly susceptible to elements he can’t master, and his monomaniacal focus, like that of Ahab whom he constantly quotes, proves both infinitely destructive and yet quaintly impotent. “I shall avenge you!” he promises the dead Joachim, suggesting that in spite of his brilliance, he’s got all the capacity to learn from his mistakes of a goldfish.
The film’s booming moments of melodrama, such as Shatner’s immortal scream of “Khaaaaaaaaan!”, are either flaws or strengths depending on taste, but surely a helluva lot of fun either way. More to the point, such touches are part and parcel with the film’s resolutely nonironic, defiantly old-fashioned air. Meyer invests the film with an outsized quality that seems distinctly operatic: indeed, Kirk’s scream comes at the conclusion of a sequence that builds like an aria, as the two bull males gibe and wound each other with a spiritual ferocity that befits the talents of Shatner and Montalban, each capable of being both very good actors and colossal show-offs. Montalban, at the time a prime-time staple in “Fantasy Island” and still showing off his marvellous physique at 62, latched onto the role with gleefully outsized zest and finally gave Shatner a run for his money as the franchise’s biggest pork roast. That said, “Khaaaaaaaaan!” notwithstanding, Shatner’s at his best in the film, swinging from flip, sardonic good humour to introspection to larger-than-life heroism with a few well-judged bats of his eyelids and shifts of the inimitable Shatner voice. If Spock is the film’s tragic hero, Kirk here finally ascends to something like warrior-poet status, conjuring grace notes of wisdom hard-won from tragedy and gazing at the Genesis Planet with a truly affecting sense of wonder and rejuvenated spirit.
Whilst it would stretching things a little to call The Wrath of Khan an intellectual adventure movie, nonetheless, it is distinguished by the genuine intelligence that permeates through the various layers of its plot, character, and theme, and how the film plays them for dramatic value. The central, biblical invocations of the Genesis Device are then overlaid with the Christlike sacrifice of Spock, lending the film a mythopoeic quality of actual depth. Too many modern, action-oriented, scifi films today treat their specific genre’s basis, in science and inquisitive theory, as a source of glib MacGuffins. The contrast with J. J. Abrams’ entertaining yet comparatively shallow 2009 reboot of the series is constantly tempting: whereas that film treated its scifi gimmicks and pivots of plot with throwaway contempt or utilitarian purpose in the name of composing a straightforward adventure, Meyer wrings such flourishes and moments to heighten suspense. Thus, the key moments of the cleverness of the heroes are relishable in staging and impact: Kirk’s foiling of Khan’s apparently complete victory by taking advantage of his superior knowledge of the Federation ships, managing to remotely lower Khan’s shields and hit him with devastating and unexpected force; the rabbit-out-of-the-hat glee of the revelation that he and Spock have fooled Khan into thinking repairs that would take two hours would actually take two days by the simplest of ruses; and the final battle where, at Spock’s suggestion, Kirk taunts Khan into following him into the Mutara Nebula, where interference leaves the two ships blind and lacking shields. There, the greater experience of Kirk and Spock sees them best Khan by simply thinking in the three-dimensional terms that a spaceship offers, whereas Khan’s mind is stuck hopelessly in the 20th century, culminating at last when the nearly crippled and dying Enterprise can still sneak up behind the Reliant and pulverise it to a drifting ruin.
Even with Khan defeated, however, the danger is still not past, as he triggers the Genesis Device as his final apocalyptic stab at a pyrrhic victory: the device’s capacity to bring life means nothing to him, but it comes to mean everything for those left to behold it. In spite of the film’s wobbles, the contrivance of the finale, as the down-to-the-wire crisis demands Spock venture into a radiation-flooded room to restore the ship’s power, is nothing short of storytelling perfection. Meyer’s willingness to reach again for operatic heights is apparent in Kirk’s forlorn cry of “Spock!” as his hideously seared and dying friend makes his last salutary “Live long and prosper” sign through the Perspex that divides them. As his body is fired off in a photon torpedo tube in a scene inspired by a similar stellar funeral in Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), “Amazing Grace” surges on the soundtrack as his casket plummets onto the Genesis planet at the same moment a sun emerges from behind: it’s like Wagner in space by this stage. The final effect, ironically, wasn’t entirely what Meyer was after, presenting rather a sop to old Trekkies who couldn’t stand Spock’s death being taken too lightly, and yet it gives the film its truly grand final lustre. The Wrath of Khan fulfilled not only the best elements of Roddenberry’s original series, but connected it to the oldest and most complete forms of adventure mythology, positing the struggles of its sky-shaking heroes in the context of the birth and death of titans and worlds.
I vividly recall the first time I saw this initial adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1982 novel. It was in high school, on one of those afternoons where for whatever reason we had no class. A substitute teacher stuck a VHS tape grabbed from the English staff room in the video to give us something to do with our eyes and less to do with our mouths. The film took its time getting our attention, but when it did, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a room full of teenagers go quite so quiet before or since. The Woman in Black is one of the few truly successful examples of pure mood-piece horror made in the past quarter century, all the more admirable for being a telemovie, made with the no-nonsense sense of functional craft that distinguished British television for so many years. The title is a deliberate play on Wilkie Collins’ famous Victorian-era mystery novel The Woman in White, as Hill’s narrative portrays the gnawing legacy of oppressive generational values and resurgent maternal vengeance roaring out from beyond the grave in the most insidious and crazed of guises, and the act of burrowing into forbidden enigmas only stirs the grimmest of retaliations.
The cult affection for both novel and telemovie has only grown over the years, and hopefully the telemovie’s reputation will hold strong when the flaccid feature film version, starring Daniel Radcliffe, is long forgotten. It is amusing to note that Radcliffe’s role is played in the original by his on-screen Harry Potter father, Adrian Rawlins. The screenplay for the ’89 version was composed by Nigel Kneale, and whilst he took liberties with Hill’s work, he had practically written the book on how to intrigue and scare the hell out of TV audiences with his Quatermass serials and excellent telemovies like The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) and The Stone Tape (1972), and he confirmed here he had lost none of his touch for weaving richly engaging supernatural mysteries. Set in the 1920s, The Woman in Black depicts a junior member of a London law firm, Arthur Kidd (Rawlins), a stolid but conscientious young professional pressured to take on the more fiddly, annoying, and time-consuming case work that stern senior partner Josiah Freston (David Daker) doesn’t deign to do, in spite of the fact that Arthur has a wife, Stella (Clare Holman), and two young children who take up all his spare time.
Arthur is thus easily compelled, for the sake of his career, to go to the seaside town of Crythin Gifford, to finalise the estate of a recently deceased woman, Alice Drablow. Upon arriving at the town, he soon begins perceiving odd phenomena. At the old lady’s funeral, Arthur observes only one mourner apart from himself and local solicitor Keckwick (William Simons), being a woman dressed in black, gazing balefully from the back of the church, and across the graveyard outside from amongst the tombstones. When Arthur tries to alert Keckwick to this, the solicitor refuses to look at her. Everyone, even the avuncular local landowner Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton) whom Arthur struck up a friendship with on the train from London, seems uneasy when he mentions Marsh House, Drablow’s home, which is perched on the far end of a long, perilous causeway stretching across a tidal plain. Amidst the tumult of the town’s market day, a young gypsy girl is pinned and injured when a load of wood falls off a cart: Arthur dashes in and snatches her out of the road before she’s crushed by a huge log.
When he’s taken out to Alice’s residence, Marsh House, to begin organising her papers and readying the house for sale, Arthur encounters the black-clad woman again, in an old family plot abutting the house. She glares at him with a feverish intensity so suggestively malevolent that she scares Arthur into fleeing inside, bolting the doors, and turning on every light in the house. Soon after, he experiences a torturous aural manifestation that documents a heartrending event: the sound of a carriage crashing into the water off the causeway, and a young child and his mother screaming in panic as they sink to their deaths. He hears this repeatedly during his time at the house, to the point where he can’t distinguish its early passages from the sound of a real carriage coming over the causeway, a detail the film then exploits for all it’s worth. Returning to town, Arthur begins to perceive the way these seemingly distinct incidents are part of a pattern, permeating the locale and all its inhabitants, as he recognises that both Keckwick and Toovey share similar tragedies in their recent past, as do many others in the vicinity, in having lost young children in accidents or illness. Arthur’s intervening to save the gypsy girl now takes on a new slant, for he has snatched another intended victim of the curse out of harm’s way, but possibly to no good end. Against Toovey’s advice and his own good sense, Arthur decides to move into Marsh House to complete his work and to delve into the mystery, which, thanks to Alice Drablow’s cylinder recordings, he begins to realise is sourced in a tragic series of events that consumed members of Alice’s family. Alone overnight with Toovey’s dog Spider as his only company, Arthur is lured upstairs to a perpetually locked room by a thumping sound and seems to perceive another haunting presence, that of a small laughing boy who plants a tiny tin soldier in Arthur’s hand.
In spite of some formidable competition from the likes of The Haunting (1963), The Legend of Hell House (1973), and The Others (2001), this first version of The Woman in Black is, alongside The Shining (1981) quite simply, the best “haunting” movie ever made, outstripping all other rivals for concisely sketched mood and slow-mounting tension. It’s very much the made-for-TV modesty of it that makes it so indelible, with no temptations to indulge in showy camerawork or special effects to distort narrative essentials. It’s also all the better for rarely trying to overtly frighten, being much more about generating tension and eeriness, making the film’s few moments of urgency and shock brilliantly effective. The story develops some familiar themes, yet expected narrative pay-offs are forestalled, only to rush in when least expected, with maximum, disorienting impact. Director Herbert Wise was a veteran television director whose very first work, ironically, was a TV version of The Woman in White (1957), and whose credits since the mid-‘50s had included stand-out telemovies like I, Claudius (1976) and Skokie (1981).
Here, Wise conjures an exactly honed sense of atmosphere, in the bustle of the law offices and the small town, the domestic warmth of Arthur’s home life, and, eventually, the mood of desolate loneliness in the remote location of Marsh House, where he alternates between agoraphobia-inducing external spaces and claustrophobic interiors, and a tingling sense of threat pervades. The film was shot almost entirely on location, and the resulting three-dimensional realism quality it credibility. The woman’s appearances are often simply matters of cunning framing as the camera dollies back and forth, her spindly figure casually appearing in the rear of shots she wasn’t in a few seconds before. In one particularly excellent moment, the one that first truly makes Arthur understand he’s in a situation beyond his ken, sees Arthur, sensing an alien presence, abruptly feel the hairs on his neck stand up, and he whips about to glimpse the woman only a few feet away, glowering at him with what he describes as a kind of hunger turned to hate, possessed of radiating power.
The paraphernalia of the superlative ghost story is expertly laid out in both script and direction: the eerie visitations of the female wraith with her faintly greenish pallor and red-rimmed eyes burning with prosecutorial loathing; the remote haunted house; the omnipresent fogs sweeping over the death-trap causeway and mysterious noises thudding out during the night; the air of secrecy weighing upon the populace of the backwater; and, lurking behind it all, a powerful source of emotional anguish that drives the ghost in her relentless program of punishing the living for her loss. The use of sound as a particular source of torment is felicitous, in the overt disquiet of the accident anguish, and also in the sound of Alice’s voice on the cylinders, giving its own tantalisingly ghostly hints, of years spent being haunted by a malignant phantom, of fending off her hate and persecution in the night, every night, for half a century. Arthur is an exemplary hero, likeable, generous, a good father and hardworking, gutsy, intelligent man.
All his qualities don’t mean a thing, however, as he’s completely outmatched in his battle with the supernatural force he unwittingly challenges and is victimised by, even as he musters an uncommon determination and bravery in venturing back to Marsh House and trying to unravel the mystery. His failure to respect the tenuous balance of the situation, rather than beginning, as in most such stories, a journey towards finding resolution for it, sees Arthur instead place himself directly in the sights of the woman’s vengeance. Arthur is steadily worn down by his experiences to a pale, feverish, hysterical wreck, as his most charming traits, his love of children and ready empathy, prove to be magnets for the ghost’s most sadistic impulses. In the final phases of the story he’s so desperate to rid himself of the last totems of Marsh House that he haphazardly piles up papers retrieved from the house in his office and sets fire to them with paraffin, nearly incinerating the law firm in the process. He also almost strangles Freston, in realising that his boss sent him to Marsh House because Freston knew about the haunting and was absolutely terrified of it.
Hill’s story essentially transfers the Latin American folk figure of La Llorona, the inconsolable weeping mother of a lost child whose appearance forebodes death and disaster, to an English setting, and invests her with a specific, wilful destructive authority. As such it represents a dark antithesis to the Victorian cult of motherhood and industry, and Hill knew it very well. This meshes with Kneale’s familiar fascination for locations that have become deeply invested by malefic influence, without his usual interest in exploring the edges of scientific credulity, except that Arthur’s pronouncement that the repetition of the accident resembles a recording calls to mind that motif in The Stone Tape. Arthur does uncover the wraith’s identity: she was Alice’s sister Jennet, who had a child out of wedlock. Alice and her husband had adopted the boy to cover up the disgrace, leaving Jennet to become increasingly unhinged. Toovey recalls her wandering the streets in anguish when he was young, and he murmurs with acidic knowing when he fingers a photo of the Drablows and the adopted boy, “Happy families!”
The horrible accident which Arthur is forced to continuously listen to on the marsh occurred when Jennet tried to snatch back her child, and then crashed whilst fleeing. The locked room was actually the boy’s bedroom. The real sting of this event, which Arthur recognises, is the taunting ambiguity of the boy’s cries for his mother: nobody, neither the living nor the dead Jennet, can know if he was calling for her or Alice, and this is the real spur to her venomous haunting. Now she is a living embodiment of rage against Victorian familial pretensions and veils of hypocrisy and lies, still maintaining a reign of terror against all family happiness in the town even as the twentieth century is slowly penetrating its environs. Marsh House has an electrical generator which has an unpleasant habit of conking out at the most hair-raising moments: Arthur’s frantic efforts to get it going, his diligence in trying to keep the house’s lights blazing, and use of the recording device, all indicate a desperate belief that the trappings of the modern world can stave off the miasma of evil and exile the phantom of past wrongs.
As suggestive as the drama of The Woman in Black is, what makes it riveting is the watchmaker’s sense of form and bastard cunning with which Kneale and Wise make it work on screen. Equally vital is the creepy music score by Rachel Portman, long before she became an Oscar-winner. Drama and music work in perfect accord at a crucial moment when Arthur is confronted with disturbing manifestations in the boy’s bedroom, the generator fails, and his panic to get the power back on again is palpable as Portman’s shrieking Psycho-esque strings blare. The film’s most memorable sequence comes when Arthur has been brought back from the house and is sleeping in a hotel, seemingly having dodged the lurking threat, except that he awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of the boy’s laughter, the tin soldier under his pillow. Arthur sits up and tries to communicate with the spirit, only for Jennet to loom over him as a shrieking, fire-eyed demon, implacable in her otherworldly abhorrence for anyone presumptuous enough to enter her domain. The primal scream Arthur releases as she swoops down on him recalls many moments in Kneale’s oeuvre.
When one is well prepared for this moment, it’s delicious and a little campy, but coming out of nowhere as it does on a first viewing it’s genuinely chilling and surprising: otherwise stalwart adults have reported being terrified by it. Similarly powerful is the very finale, when Arthur and his wife and baby take a weekend sojourn in a rowboat. Arthur finally seems to be regaining some peace of mind, only to spy the wraith standing upon the lake surface, smiling with queasy triumph as a tree breaks and crashes down upon the family, racking up three more sacrifices for her unquenchable, perverted sense of justice. It’s as bleak as conclusions come, but The Woman in Black is relishable to its last frame precisely because, like the title character, it plays a merciless game with a showman’s sense of timing.
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K), started in 1988 on KTMA, a Minnesota television station, but was swiftly promoted onto Comedy Central and, later, the Sci-Fi Channel. After some initial line-up changes, the show settled into a formula, with comedian Joel Hodgson, cocreator of the show, playing a version of himself as a victimised everyman kept prisoner in space on the Satellite of Love by evil genius Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu). Forced to watch bad movies in a relentless experiment in mind control, he constructed a team of acerbic, antisocial robots, Crow (Beaulieu again) and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), in a touch inspired by Silent Running (1972), that helped him mock the often dreadful movies foisted upon them. The line-up altered through the years, most notably with members of the writing team, Mike Nelson, Mary Jo Pehl, and Bill Corbett, taking over the parts of victim, tormentor, and Crow, but the basic dynamic remained successfully intact until the show’s demise in 1999, thanks to those corporate maniacs! Damn them all to hell! At any rate, the warmly goofy tone of the witty, semi-dramatic interludes depicting the altercations of the Satellite of Love team and their hapless persecutors helped to make MST3K the most clever and sustained variation on an American TV tradition stretching back to the sepulchral quips of Vampira in the 1950s.
The limited production values gave the show’s creators a chance to exhibit much the same qualities as the material they were showcasing: low-budget, flagrantly tacky invention, but layered with hipster sarcasm, referential dot-joining, and genuine movie-geek affection for the weird, wonderful, and often just plain lame breed of cinema on display. The legacy of MST3K has been a little mixed for fans of schlock genre cinema because any film subjected to the show’s signature snark was instantly branded for all and sundry as noxious junk. That was patently untrue of a number of movies the team took on, including This Island Earth (1955), Danger: Diabolik (1967), and The Undead (1957), and other, sometimes excellent low-budget works. Also, apart from occasional dares, like roasting a tacky West German version of Hamlet from the early ’60s, they rarely took on the more difficult tasks of making fun of inflated pseudo-art, or pumped-up Hollywood idiocies like Top Gun (1986) or Pretty Woman (1990), which have no budgetary excuses for their rankness. Instead, the quips at their laziest replicated standard shtick of mocking not terribly photogenic actors or cheap and obvious special effects, whilst ignoring hints of intelligence in the script or direction. But MST3K was arguably as much about a variety of audience interaction and the peculiar fraternity that has always defined fans of junk cinema as it was about film criticism, and at their best, the team’s riffs constructed new, concurrent movie narratives.
The series’ most beloved episodes include their epic takedowns of the South African space opera Space Mutiny (1988), Coleman Francis’ rancid beatnik noir film Night Train to Mundo Fine aka Red Zone Cuba (1966), and Ray Dennis Steckler’s freaky The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1966). MST3K often flailed trying to sustain its signature type of humour, but some of the team’s extended riffs, like the WWF-style commentary on the climactic bout of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1974) and the beach party of The Horror of Party Beach (1964), can stand up with any more polished challengers for sustained comic brilliance. Widely felt to be the show’s most definitive chapter is the 1993 episode that disinterred Harold P. Warren’s barely-screened “Manos” The Hands of Fate. Another product of that vintage year, 1966, “Manos” had failed to meet even its lowly ambition of becoming filler at drive-ins.
This film, whose title translates as “Hands The Hands of Fate,” was a labour of…well, not love, but rather a mixture of envy, gall, and entrepreneurial daring, for Warren, an El Paso fertiliser salesman. See? The jokes write themselves here. Legend has it Warren made the film after a lounge bar encounter with reputable Hollywood screenwriter Sterling Silliphant, whom he a bet he could produce a film for under $50,000. I’ve always been fascinated by the mystique of such risk-taking, low-budget cinema entrepreneurs, but for every George Romero or John Waters (whose no-frills early movies are name-checked at one point in the MST3K episode) thrown up by the cultural bayous, there are too many more like Warren, who simply redefined the depths of incompetence such fly-by-night filmmakers can descend to (a tradition still alive for us today thanks to Tommy Wiseau). Also, “Manos” The Hands of Fate is genuinely unwatchable without the MST3K crew (I know, I’ve tried) and would probably have remained in virtually complete ignominy had MST3K not disinterred it.
The funny thing is that “Manos” shows inklings of promise on a conceptual level. With its plot revolving around a nuclear family venturing into the southwestern backwoods and falling foul of retrograde menaces, it’s a certifiable first draft for the variations of that theme in 1970s horror cinema. The story setup, with the bizarre high priest of an obscure cult with a rugby team of wives and a satyr for a manservant, and the downbeat finale that was just becoming more popular in horror films, also hint at unexplored possibilities for black satire, or at least a half-decent soft-core porn film: paging Jesús Franco! There’s a vaguely existentialist air to the proceedings, as the family who are the protagonists finish up on a road to nowhere from which there is no return, and their smug presumptions swiftly unravel. There are signs Warren wanted to make a film with a lot more sex appeal, but because the modeling agency that he hired the evil cult leader’s wives from forbade anything but rather prim apparel, he spiced things up with the stodgiest mass catfight in cinema history. As Hodgson devastatingly sums it up at one point, “every single frame of this movie looks like someone’s last-known photograph.”
The family, consisting of dim-witted patriarch Mike (Warren himself, under the thin pseudonym of Hal Warren), equally dim-witted but slightly more intuitively aware mother Margaret (Diane Mahree), and young daughter Debbie, drive to their rendezvous with fate…and drive…and drive. The Robots start to fret, wondering if possibly this time Forrester is going to make them watch a snuff film. Finally a missed turn along a side road which seems signposted as the way to Valley Lodge (or “Valley Looge” as Joel misreads the poorly painted prop sign) brings them instead to a remote house overseen by Torgo, who mumbles uncertainly about not wanting to upset the Master (Tom Neyman).
This sequence highlights both the dire lacks of Warren’s film, and the singular inspiration of the MST3K team, as the watching trio make up dialogue for the characters that is both very funny and yet makes much more hay out of the ludicrous situation unfolding on screen than the script ever did. The spectacle of the family trying to negotiate Torgo’s physical strangeness and incoherent mix of warning and greasy hospitality is newly inflected with surreal politeness (“You got family, Torgo?”) and sarcasm (“So what does the Master approve?”), which, ironically, combine to make the scene feel much more…well, realistic—suddenly the characters have depth and pathos, as well as even deeper strangeness. Torgo himself—described initially by Servo as “Tom Cruise is Dr. John!” like a pitch for some nightmarish, yet alarming possible, musical biopic—is frustrated with his master for hogging all the women who fall into their trap, and leers over Margaret when he gets her alone, a liberty she’s appalled by in spite of the fact he’s slightly more attractive than her husband. The family dog runs outside and is later found mauled to death, and then Debbie disappears, prompting a search that brings the family closer to the shrine where the priest and his wives sleep. Quite a lot of MST3K’s comic style was attuned to mocking lazy exposition and cheap directorial tricks, but “Manos” offers a challenge in that regard, considering that Warren seems barely aware of any directorial tricks. A rare instance is a clumsy flashcut between the sight of the Master and his previously glimpsed portrait back in the house: “Ooooooh I get it,” Servo murmurs sarcastically.
Otherwise Warren’s lack of technique provides plentiful fuel for unforgiving ridicule. For example, Warren offers a long, boring, opening travel montage without quite seeming to understand the purpose of such montages is to compress the experience, not fill screen time—Hitchcock’s maxim of film being life with the boring parts cut out is numbingly forgotten. When two local cops pull over the family, Joel gives them the line, “Do you guys have any idea how you was framin’ back there?” A peculiar quality of “Manos” is that it almost seems to boil some generic basic of the era down to a pure essence, in a sort of revelatory, inadvertently satirical coup, encompassing a portrait of square ’60s suburbanites trapped in an existential crisis. Mike’s utter insensibility to any sort of caution and constant pig-headed patronisation is balanced by his being completely wrong and ineffectual all the time (“When is this guy going to start showing some simple competence?” Joel demands in exasperation when Mike can’t get his car started), and Margaret’s attitude is one of fretful anxiety and febrile passivity. At one stage, she gets grossly pawed by Torgo, whom she’s taller than and could probably push over with a sneeze considering his lousy satyr’s balance, but she shrinks back in torpid fear.
Another great MST3K trait was their capacity to rip fragments out of films and drop them into different genres, here perhaps best illustrated in a moment when Margaret combs her hair with a glazed and nervous aspect, and the riffs transform it into a musical: “Torgo, I just met a guy named Torgo!” Servo sings to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story, whilst Joel gives her the line, as if we’re in a wistful romance, “Mrs. Phyllis Torgo…guess I kind of like it.” The trio are often at their best when making fun of movie music, and they eat the score of this film alive, filled as it is with long, haunting flute solos that sound like they’ve been stolen from some sensitive indie film about wandering homeless children (“It’s Herbie Mann-os!”), interspersed with dreadful jazzy lounge singing and hideous dance-pop.
There’s a sort of subplot with barely a hair’s relationship to anything in the rest of the movie that involves two teens in a convertible constantly making out and being harassed by the cops: they do serve a function of alerting the audience to the doom the family is heading into and alerting the cops to their peril. But really, the kissers are just there to kiss. “Manos”’s sleazy aspect, complete with intimations of paedophilia in the final twist, is pronounced throughout even as the film displays no idea of how to make it count for anything sexy or unnerving; instead, it is icing on the cake for the whole film’s rankness. “I’m guessing this why this whole movie was made,” Servo says during the catfight scene, whilst Crow, as one of the wives slaps hell out of the other, inserts a little Chinatown reference, “She’s my sister and my daughter!”, perhaps my favourite moment of the episode. Another is when we get our first glimpse of the Master’s crypt, which bears an odd resemblance to a bad variety club act, emphasised by the rattling drum and cymbal music. Here the MST3K team’s well of cultural references and habit of projecting them into the movies blends perfectly with the editing of the film, as Servo adopts the voice of an announcer: “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight at the Copacabana, Jules Podell proudly presents…Pat Benatar and Tricia Nixon!”
The “Manos” episode is also a prime, if not quite the best, example of MST3K’s host comedy sketches interpolated throughout, with the usually gleeful Forrester and Frank each apologising in turn for going too far for making the crew watch this movie. The increasingly distraught, exasperated robots and Joel try to turn lemons into lemonade by mocking the driving scenes in adopting the persona of a Minnesota Swede and his family enjoying the scenery with “bemused interest” and being harassed by a southern sheriff caricature, but the robots are so nauseated by the footage from the film they can’t finish the sketch. The episode ends with Forrester and Frank ordering pizza, which is delivered by Torgo himself (played by future host Mike Nelson) in his ponderously icky fashion.
To fill out the episode owing to the short running time of “Manos”, it starts with part of an old Chevrolet sales-training film Hired, a bleakly tacky and hectoring piece of work about a senior company salesman complaining to his father about his lazy underlings, but being convinced by his father to put real effort into training them. The trio’s riffing on Hired beautifully draws out the quasi-fascistic edge in the short’s theme, acting, and style, presenting Chevrolet salesmanship as a pseudo-military operation requiring deep commitment and utter perfection of technique, capturing in its way how American big business tried to transfer the ethos of military service into civilian life after WWII. The leading salesman’s gruff advice is rounded out by Crow’s adding, “Name names!” whilst Joel has another ask, “Are you now or have you ever been a Ford owner?” Hired might, in its way, showcase the felicitous sensibility of the MST3K team even more perfectly than “Manos”. As for Warren, I have no idea whether he ever collected his bet from Silliphant, but thankfully, he never made another movie.
Shoot the Messenger is a humorous and profoundly uncomfortable film for any serious-minded, well-intentioned liberal to watch. As a white liberal, I found it particularly hard to react to. The film opens with a black man saying in an angry and anguished tone, “Everything bad that has happened in my life has happened because of black people.” It is tempting to think of the man as a successor to the unnamed protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a black man made profoundly self-loathing by racism. But in the spirit of the unintentionally ironic “feminist” ads for Virginia Slims cigarettes, “We’ve come a long way, baby.”
Joe Pascale (David Oyelowo), an angry young black man in good, updated British tradition, isn’t shown to be the victim of racism. He’s actually a buppie who wants to do something to help troubled black boys become proud and productive men. He attends a meeting at which the problem is being discussed, or rather, pinned on anyone and everyone, and finally hears something he can do. He can become a teacher and role model. He quits his good job in information technology and lands a teaching job at a local high school. He’s so proud as he stands in front of the school, with two boys washing some obscene graffiti from the front of it. He’s going to clean up, too, and uses a tough-love approach that Sidney Poitier’s character Mark Thackeray in To Sir, With Love would have approved of heartily.
Unfortunately, the black boys in his school have developed something the eventually grateful students Poitier taught didn’t have—pride. Three friends led by Germal (Charles Mnene) sit in the back of Joe’s class and lob jeers. One morning when the three are slow to enter Joe’s classroom, Joe grabs Germal’s shoulder and pushes him toward the door. Germal protests that teachers are not supposed to touch students. After Joe gives Germal and his friends numerous detention classes (in which Joe takes great pride for forcing the students to learn), Joe learns that Germal has filed an assault complaint against him. The principal tries to drop it, but Germal’s mother goes to authorities, and criminal charges are brought against Joe.
The media start calling. Joe initially resists making a statement, but as the heat becomes more intense, he goes on a radio show to tell his side of the story. Of course, the shock jock hosts broil him and condemn “the system” that does nothing to protect black children. Eventually, Joe is brought to trial and convicted, though he receives a suspended sentence. As he walks out of the courtroom, he is heckled by community protesters carrying signs that say “House Nigger.” Of course, he loses his job. After he cleans out his locker at school, the wall he took so much pride in keeping clean of graffiti gets tagged with Joe’s personal mantra: “Fuck Black People.”
Joe goes mad, and after a stint in an asylum, ends up on the streets. Sitting on a bench in the pouring rain, he sees an older woman, Sarah (Medina Aijikawo), struggling with her groceries. She’s black, and he’s reluctant to help, but does. After that, he becomes a crusade for her. A church lady, she brings parishioners and her preacher to his spot in the alley and encourages him to come to Jesus—which he does. He moves into her home, wears her son’s clothes, and attends her church. He notices that all the people in church are women. Where are all the men? Cut to prison, where Sarah visits her son Roy (Richard Pepple). Joe thought he was dead, but of course, he should have known: Most black men are incarcerated.
Eventually, Joe tries to get a job, but his assault conviction (being appealed) hinders him. He and his job counselor Heather (Nikki Amuka-Bird) become romantically involved. She is a New Ager/self-helper who wears a hair weave and won’t let Joe touch her hair. When she is having a new weave put in, Joe takes some of the hair and burns it, forcing her to comb out her real hair into an afro. He is trying to work on her self-esteem. Instead, she breaks up with him because she doesn’t feel good about herself when she’s with him. Nobody does. His odyssey ends in the mental hospital to which he was admitted, where he encounters Germal for a final time and finally sees the fatal error that led him astray. The last shot challenges the audience, however, when Joe defies expectations and says he doesn’t take back a lot of what he said.
And what he says throughout this film in his direct-to-the-audience asides is dynamite in the cultural war within the black community. Joe would be a Joe Lieberman Republican in this country, a bit of a contradiction. He wants to help the beleaguered black community, but he does it from a condescending position. He is extremely hurt at how the community turns on him with their “House Nigger” signs, but in a way, he is. He is a classic boot-strapper who believes in individual responsibility and initiative, and refuses to accept arguments about slavery as excuses for the underachieving black community. Even Sarah says that blacks can’t be trusted because they pull each other down. They are the cursed people of Canaan to her.
The beauty of this film, though, is that it is more than a political satire. Joe’s pain at the rejection of his good intentions is extreme. He tells Heather that a heckler threw a rotten vegetable at him and holds his chest, over his heart, to indicate where the object struck. “After that, I went cold,” he says. Heather responds, “They broke your heart.” His later indictments include welfare mothers exemplified by Sarah’s daughter, who comes to Christmas dinner with her four children from four different fathers and abandons them, and a hoochie-looking girl with decaled fingernails and a made-up name (L’Braia). Like all stereotypes, these are funny, have a grain of truth, and are extremely unsettling. Joe’s refusal to disown his disdain for that bad behavior of members of his race shows that the filmmakers thought th black experience could finally handle criticism. (Not everyone saw it that way, however, calling the film “the most racist programme” in BBC history.)
Sharon Foster won the Dennis Potter Screenwriting Award for Shoot the Messenger, and it is a worthy honor for a television writer—this film was originally aired on BBC2—working solidly in Potter’s no-holds-barred tradition and borrowing styles from a wide range of works, from Alfie to Homer’s The Odyssey. Director Ngozi Onwurah maintains a sharp, comic pace, while skillfully building the force of the more serious, dramatic elements of the film. Shoot the Messenger is a gleefully thoughtful tour de force.
Well before Newsweek declared in June 1986 that it was more unlikely for an unmarried 40-year-old woman to get a husband than to be killed by a terrorist, writer Armistead Maupin struck a nerve with San Francisco’s unmarried women—and a lot of other people—with his portrait of the city’s romantic scene. What became Maupin’s first novel, Tales of the City, started showing up in serialized form, first in 1974 in The Pacific Sun newspaper, and then switching to The San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, exposing the general readership of these papers to the travails of heterosexual women in a city teeming with gay residents, as well as the way various factions in the city lived, loved, and interacted. In much the same way as Maupin’s series and eventual eight books opened a few eyes in their fun and offbeat way, the two miniseries based on his work created a minor earthquake for people like me with little or no exposure to gay life or San Francisco social customs.
In many ways, Tales of the City and its sequel tell a pretty familiar story about the search for love. Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney, in the first role I and many other people ever saw her play) is a fresh-faced young woman from Cleveland who decides to make her vacation in San Francisco permanent. She feels at home in San Francisco, she tells her flabbergasted mother over the phone, though it’s fairly obvious that she’s been seduced by its spectacular scenery and laissez-faire atmosphere that are worlds away from her home in the American heartland. She takes up her asterisk-flowered luggage and bunks in with Connie (Parker Posey), an old friend from high school who is singularly dedicated to finding her sexual identity by reading self-help books and smutty magazines and picking up men at discos and the grocery store. After seeing Connie bring home a man she herself had rejected, Mary Ann starts looking for a new apartment. A distinctive classified draws her to 28 Barbary Lane, a courtyard building on Russian Hill that looks like an idyllic land that time forgot. She quickly becomes the newest member of the small “family” headed by flamboyant landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) who welcomes each new tenant with a joint made from the marijuana she grows in her garden.
28 Barbary Lane forms the heart of the intersecting stories that have Mrs. Madrigal and her low-rent tenants—hippie fag hag Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb in the first series, Nina Siemaszko in the second), gay looking-for-love Michael Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico/Paul Hopkins), womanizer Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross/Whip Hubley), and Mary Ann—bumping into the lives of the high-rent Halcyon/Day households. Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat) runs an ad agency, employing Mona as a copywriter and hiring Mary Ann as his secretary on Mona’s recommendation. His son-in-law Beauchamp (pronounced Beechum) Day (Thomas Gibson) is a selfish lout who seduces and dumps Mary Ann over a weekend, much to his wife DeDe’s (Barbara Garrick) dismay, and has a one-night stand with Michael’s boyfriend Jon Fielding (Bill Campbell) in the gay baths. DeDe consoles herself in the arms of Lionel Wong (Philip Moon), the son of her Chinese grocer who delivers; Mona leaves Michael, who moved in with her after he moved out of his former lover’s apartment, and returns for financial security and a platonic relationship to her rich lesbian lover D’orothea Wilson (Cynda Williams/Francoise Robertson), who models for the Halcyon agency; Mary Ann, who tried to pick up Michael’s first lover at the grocery store, doesn’t find love until the second series, and then it’s with an amnesiac named Burke (Colin Ferguson) who throws up every time he sees roses; and Michael and Jon break up and make up. Most important, Edgar and Anna find true love together in the last six months of Edgar’s life, a love that endures even after Anna tells Edgar that she is a transsexual who grew up in the brothel where Edgar lost his virginity, and that Mona is her daughter.
Got all that?
Of all the big cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, San Francisco is the one that seems most like a small town, or series of small towns all planted side by side on its hilly streets, open for some neighborly snooping through a pair of binoculars (which Brian and a party of gay men indulge in during the second series). Being a port city and a jewel on the magnetic California coast, it is also a place of transience. Tales of the City emphasizes not only San Francisco’s small-town incestuousness, but also the reinvention that California offers its teeming masses. Every type of sexual arrangement is explored, and the nontraditional ones appear to breed more stable, happy people than the socially accepted ones.
The people who seem most trapped and unhappy are those who play by society’s rules: DeDe’s wealth screws her into a socket of social propriety that has her a virtual prisoner of public opinion and her unhappy marriage; her mother Frannie, strikingly played by Nina Foch in the first series and pallidly by Diana Leblanc in the second, is so in her cups she doesn’t notice that her husband has fallen in love with someone else. Frannie escapes in the second series, where her drinking is drastically downplayed and her freedom to enjoy her life and money doesn’t come until she turns 60 and is eligible to join another very exclusive club for women exploring their hedonist side. It seems telling to me that this club, called Pinus (hardy har har), implies that these women who have married, raised families, and volunteered for all the right charities have long ago left behind pampering and sexual fulfillment—all the things Pinus’ stock of handsome, well-built young men will offer them for a price.
Maupin is, in fact, rather unkind to women in this series. Mona goes postal on a client selling pantyhose, loses her job, and then basically becomes completely lost. She is very close to Michael (“Mouse”), but leaves him with hardly a by-your-leave, refuses to have sex with D’orothea and leaves her, too, and then just leaves. A random encounter—again fated in the stars by a Maupin coincidence—puts her in company of her grandmother, “Mother Mucca” (Jackie Burroughs), madam of the Blue Moon brothel in Winnamucca, Nevada, and eventually, the entire Ramsey family ends up in or near Barbary Lane. Mona’s vengeful mother Betty (Swoosie Kurtz) comes to see her estranged daughter and blackmail her husband, and is instead sent packing to avoid a scandal. Mary Ann is ill-treated by Beauchamp—who seems to be the biggest douche of all because he plays both sides of the fence and loves no one but himself—and lets her dreamboat Burke go off to New York without her because she is unwilling to leave her cozy family at Barbary Lane. And DeDe and her new love, D’orothea go off to a place where, D’orothea says, “there are no strangers”—Jonestown.
Brian was potentially the most interesting character to me. A hetero man who dropped off his fast track to success as a lawyer and became first a professional protester (“I was at Wounded Knee.”) and then just a guy waking up with a different woman every morning, he seems to be a pretty typical representative of straight guys in San Francisco, at least as imagined/observed by Armistead Maupin and his love-starved hetero women. Paul Gross played Brian with a real complexity—acting like a complete jerk and revealing his serious-minded background as something of a dark secret. By contrast, Whip Hubley is Mr. Nice Guy through and through and made me completely lose interest in this rather dark character. His story line in the second series seems cheap and facile while trying to follow Anna’s advice to find a nice girl to be sincere with.
Michael is mainly an unemployed and unpretentious guy from Florida who has a hard time with self-esteem. He is the entry point to gay culture for the rest of us, using gay slang and generally being sweet and romantic. I liked Marcus D’Amico a bit better in the role because he wasn’t so pretty and he seemed less affected, but Paul Hopkins was a close second. Mary Ann becomes his fag hag in the second series, but I missed his intimacy with Mona as played by the intriguing Chloe Webb. Linney’s affection for him just seemed a little too big. In fact, most things about her character and performance seemed too everything—too naïve, too flamboyant, too understanding—and I put this down mainly to the writing. I don’t feel Maupin or his fellow screenwriters had a real understanding of this character, and if Linney didn’t look so much the part and try so hard to fill her with a bit of depth, Mary Ann might have been a complete misfire.
If this series belongs to anyone, it is Olympia Dukakis. This may be her best role, and I hope I won’t insult her by saying that she looks as though she could have been a man at one point in her life. This androgyny helps make Anna a very believable character physically, but obviously, her performance goes deeper. Her life as a man surfaces in her response to situations, but her mother hen routine is strongly felt. I sensed right through the TV screen the atmosphere of home she created in the almost enchanted setting of 28 Barbary Lane. Her love affair with Edgar develops beautifully, the only love story in this series that really touched my soul for its maturity and depth. When Edgar dies, I actually believed that Anna could sense the moment it happened. Of course, the asshole Anna admitted to being when she was Andy comes through, too. She has a genuine panic attack when she fears Betty will destroy her family, and it is this possessive love that has made her tenants prisoners in their haven. None of them is truly gainfully employed, emotionally committed to anyone but each other, or looking to fulfill any dream but being part of a family—and how much of that is generated by Anna’s dream, one wonders. Ultimately, this is kind of a sad story.
As a series, I prefer the first part for its greater emotional intimacy, particularly as generated by Dukakis and the great Donald Moffat. I preferred the gritty cinematography of Walt Lloyd in the first series to the slick, brightly colored work of Serge Ladoucer. Some scenes as shot by Lloyd were atmospheric and chilling, such as when Jon is cruising silently through the steam of the baths or the raucousness and competitiveness in the End Up Club, where Michael enters a dance contest to win money to pay the rent. The first series also attracted quite a few major celebrities, from Moffat and Foch to Karen Black, Bob Mackie, Paul Dooley, and Rod Steiger. I thought it was hilarious that everyone was watching “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,”—a favorite of mine and apparently of the entire gay community—only to have Mary Kay Place, a star of that late-night soap opera, appear in a small part as the leader of a topical ladies luncheon whose subject of the month was their personal experience of rape. The second series had fewer surprise guest stars (perhaps because it was filmed largely in Canada instead of California) though Swoosie Kurtz whipped out a terrific performance from a cliché-ridden and brief part. Both series indulged in a cloak-and-dagger mystery, but only the first series made use of the Northern California setting to evoke Hitchcockian suspense. The latter series simply devolved into silliness that left me cold. But then, the warmth of the free-love culture San Francisco represented to the world was about to give way to the horrors of AIDS, and the tender mercies of Tales of the City could no longer make sense.
We’ve been having an impromptu BBC-TV week here at Ferdy on Films, beginning with my assessment of Dennis Potter’s Cream in My Coffee and continuing with Rod’s dual review of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. Rod and I have both noted how these works were influences—in the former case, on Potter’s later works, in the latter, on later feature films dealing with the Cold War. With The Debussy Film, one of several commissioned works Ken Russell did during the 1960s on famous artists, composers, and dancers for the BBC series Monitor and Omnibus, Russell experimented with images that would show up in his films Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971). The films also laid the groundwork for a extended examination of famous creators in feature-length biopics, such as The Music Lovers (1970), Savage Messiah (1972), Mahler (1974), Lizstomania (1975), and Valentino (1977).
Rod commented to me that watching Russell’s BBC work made glaringly obvious how unambitious those now working in television and film are when it comes to biography. Indeed, most such films are either documentaries, hagiographies, or focused only on the most sensational parts—or indeed, only one particular slice—of a famous person’s life. Additionally, experimentation of the type Russell indulged in his biographies is so audacious—and largely successful—it puts other such works to shame. For example, the Oscar-nominated Exit through the Gift Shop (2010) mixes reality with fantasy in offering a biography of its central protagonist, but its experiments are so hamfisted and immature—not to mention that the film’s story may be largely a made-up joke—that it seems like the 43rd clone of a Russell original: pallid, weak, and played out.
The Debussy Film is no such beast. Russell sets out to tell the life story of composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), borrowing in structure from Citizen Kane by offering the end of Debussy’s life first and recounting the whys and wherefores of how such a great composer could have been buried with so little fanfare and such a small mourning party attending his funeral. He also adopts a narrator similar to Jedediah Leland in Kane. This narrator is the “director” of the film (Vladek Sheybal), who also plays the role of Pierre Louis, a rich photographer and one of Debussy’s benefactors. With this casting, and with an opening showing the cast and crew assembling at a location in Eastbourne, Russell signals that he intends to move freely between the period film and the present, letting the bones of shooting the film show through the skin.
Russell uses a newspaper reporter on the set to interview the director about the film as the device that first allows his narrator to state the facts of Debussy’s life. The director introduces the dramatis personae, for example, an offhand “There’s Debussy, over there” as the camera pans to Oliver Reed talking to an actress playing Madame Vasnier, a singer for whom he wrote the first songs of his to be performed in public and someone who was “looking after him at the time. He always needed someone to look after him.” We are informed they were also lovers, as the camera pans to Monsieur Vasnier, sitting apart from the pair, the shadows of the camera crew clearly visible in the foreground. Then the camera switches back to Debussy and Madame Vasnier, and the figure of a young woman moves between them and embraces Debussy. “And then I met Gaby,” intrudes Reed’s voice as he looks into his script. It is in this daisy-chain manner that Russell moves characters in and out of Debussy’s life.
Gaby Dupont, played by the Piaf-like Annette Robertson, lived with and supported Debussy for nine years as they both explored the bohemian artists’ world of Paris. They are shown in the throes of a young, carefree love—walking in the rain, chasing through a garden, with “Gardens in the Rain” playing under the scene. We learn during this scene that Debussy took up music because of French poet Paul Verlaine’s mother-in-law, who claimed to have studied with Chopin and who taught Debussy how to play piano. Again, we learn these facts from Reed in voiceover, speaking as Debussy. And then Russell moves us into the present, as we watch Robertson and Reed act out the love of Debussy and Gaby while swimming.
I particularly loved the stroll Reed and Sheybal take through the Tate Museum gallery containing the paintings of Rossetti and other visual artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (sadly, not seen to their best advantage in the black-and-white photography of the film), who inspired Debussy’s impressionistic and dreamy music. “He wanted his music to be paintings in sound,” says Sheybal, and noting Debussy’s love of Whistler’s nocturne paintings, introduces one of the composer’s three nocturnes, “Les Fêtes.” The arresting images of a Catholic procession, full of stern nuns and masked priests carrying an idol of the Madonna and child, presage the themes and images Russell would use in The Devils.
Another image, one that would show up in a slightly different form of drown lovers in Women in Love, occurs after Debussy’s story moves past his rejections of Gaby and Lily Texier (Penny Service), his first wife. Both women shot themselves in despair, and both survived, but Russell gives us an image of their prone, still forms in bikinis lying across rocks on shore as he walks with his new patron and future wife, the rich and artistic Madame Bardac (Isa Teller). The pair moved into the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, where he composed “La Mer,” my personal favorite among Debussy’s works. Another arresting image shows Debussy standing on a balcony, and the crane shot goes from a relatively close shot of Debussy and pulls back gradually to reveal him near the top of the enormous hotel edifice, literally on top of the world with his money problems behind him, a bonafide masterpiece under his belt, and his star on the international scene about to rise precipitously. Still, below him in the ornate hotel pool, swims Gaby, suggesting that she was his one true love and muse.
In 1914, when World War I began, Debussy received a commission to write a piece of war music. “It was to be for Albert, King of the Belgians. It had to include the Belgian national anthem,” Reed says in voiceover. Says the director, “‘Berceuse héroïque’ is possibly the most unheroic, unbloodthirsty war music ever written.” Russell juxtaposes the solemn, beautiful music Debussy wrote with what to the composer would have been completely alien images of war. That he accepted the commission at all is part of a section recounting his feverish activities writing film scores, operas, anything at all to support his daughter Chouchou after his wife’s income was cut off.
The film then trails into Debussy’s final years, when illness and ennui sent him into seclusion, and he continued his work on a piece based on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Twelve years of tortuous work imagining a man, Roderick Usher, with whom he completely identified, yielded only “two or three sheets of music.” Russell creates a wonderfully evocative, short horror film in which Reed moves through an enormous, empty castle. He is met in a geometric hall not by the risen ghost of Usher’s sister, but rather by images of Gaby and Lily, the women he wronged, as the final strains of “La Mer” yield to the funeral procession set up in the first scene of the film.
Russell indulges his sexual provocations in what I thought were mainly juvenile ways—taking an out-of-context scene of a woman in modern dress being shot through with arrows in reference to Debussy’s composition “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” and having the director tell the reporter they had intended to do it with the actress nude. The reporter, looking at the actress seated next to the director primping for an extraordinarily long time in a hand mirror, leers and gets flustered. Additionally, he has Service meet Reed and other cast members by emerging topless from the pool of the Grand Hotel, which made me feel nothing but embarrassment. Yet one scene, in which the rejected Lily, remembering her love with Debussy in his passionate embrace, runs off in despair, was heartfelt and affecting.
It was a privilege to see Russell developing his ideas in this and the other programs contained in the invaluable Ken Russell at the BBC box set. I hope would-be film biographers can one day work with the courage, spirit of experimentation, and fun Russell displays here.
The Cold War seems to be coming back into fashion as a storytelling subject. Twenty years after it ended, and following the fragmentary anxieties of the post 9/11 world, this time might be starting to look almost cosy in its firmly delineated conflicts and ideological boundaries, especially to anyone not old enough to remember the low-key aura of terror I readily recall from watching politicians of the era bicker with the stakes of nuclear war in play. In any event, with the popularity of sheer entertainments like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and the hilarious Salt (2009), as well as the more substantial, like Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2005), Florian von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006), and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days (2007), the Cold War milieu seems to be reviving as a popular cinematic topic. The fact that Tomas Alfredson, director of Let The Right One In (2008), is currently making a feature adaptation of John Le Carré’s hit 1976 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, bears out this new legitimacy. Of course, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a dense, intelligent, witty, gripping tome, is the sort of material that is worth making a movie of in any era. For anyone who’s seen the first adaptation of the book, the lengthy BBC-TV miniseries featuring Alec Guinness as Le Carré’s protagonist George Smiley, the first question that leaps to mind is, nonetheless, “Why bother?”
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and some other Le Carré adaptations, stand alongside the likes of Dr. Strangelove (1964) amongst the relatively few Cold War artefacts that have retained relevance, because they’re as much about something malignant lodged deeply in the modern psyche as they are about politics. “I’ve always felt that the security services are the only true expression of a nation’s character,” Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson) pronounces late in Tinker Tailor, and one could easily substitute the word “nation” for something broader in terms of the story’s enquiries. For Le Carré’s perspective on the post-WWII world is a coolly cynical one, one full of “half-devils versus half-angels,” as Connie Sachs (Beryl Reid), former MI6 info savant, describes them. Tinker Tailor and sequel Smiley’s People revolve around intricate detective stories that are blended on many levels with character studies, cryptic discernment and intellectual obscurity, and ironically realistic portraiture of geopolitics and the grubby heroes of espionage. Le Carré is the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell, who worked for MI6 in the late ’50s and early ’60s, in the period after the infamous Cambridge Five betrayals had left British intelligence reeling. Tinker Tailor was in very large part his sidelong account of that milieu.
“George Smiley, the Chelsea pensioner himself, god help us, fought every war since Thermopylae, hot, cold, and deep frozen!” is how Connie describes Le Carré’s favourite hero, who had evolved from a shadowy, unctuous-seeming functionary in his early novels (he was played by Rupert Davies in Martin Ritt’s strong film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1963, and by James Mason, though the character was renamed, in Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair, 1965) into a doggedly admirable, if still, when necessary, a chilly, expediency-favouring hero. Smiley’s own degradation and casting out of the fold of “The Circus,” as the headquarters of the service is known to the intelligence fraternity, proves to be the first act in the long odyssey by which he gains revenge on the traitors and enemy spymaster responsible for making much of his service a living hell of constantly watching agents being caught, tortured, and shot. At the outset of Tinker Tailor, Smiley’s boss, the emaciated, dying, reclusive “Control” (Alexander Knox), is desperate, convinced there’s a mole in the higher echelons of The Circus. He brings in one of his aging, but still stalwart reliables, Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen), to meet with a Czech general who supposedly can supply the name. But Jim is shot and captured, and Control, Smiley, and everyone else linked closely to them is either forcibly retired or exiled in unrewarding posts.
Six months later, George is fetched out of retirement by Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston), one of Smiley’s protégés who’s been stuck running “scalp-hunters”—low-rent agents who specialise in enticing defectors—at the behest of The Circus’s civil service overlord Oliver Lacon (Anthony Bate). Smiley overhears the tale of one of Guillam’s agents, Ricky Tarr (Hywel Bennett), who, on a nondescript mission in Portugal, had an affair with a female Russian agent named Irina (Susan Kodicek). She spoke to Tarr of the mole’s existence, but disappeared shortly thereafter. Lacon can only rely on Smiley to investigate now. With Guillam’s help, Smiley studies the new ruling cabal at The Circus: the new boss, pompous poltroon Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge); quirky but dynamic Circus hero Bill Haydon; dour, working-class Roy Bland (Terence Rigby); and Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton), a fishy Hungarian playing the perfect English gentleman. That quartet were ennobled by fostering the supposedly astounding Russian mole “Merlin,” whose flow of information, dubbed “Witchcraft,” seems to have put The Circus back onto an even footing with the CIA. Control had dismissed this source as too good to be true, and Smiley, working on that theory, begins to ever-so-carefully unravel the chain of events around Prideaux’s capture, and through that, discern the mole’s identity.
All these ins and outs could be mistaken for the operations of cyborgs engaged in some kind of arcane game if it weren’t for the ever-elusive human factor, the way personal weakness, so theoretically unpredictable and yet so often exactly predictable, can infect any enterprise. For the spymasters of both sides, their webs are extensions of their personalities. These men’s whole lives have become entwined with their work, to the extent that George’s wife was seduced by a traitor. For the English side, The Circus is a functioning asylum for outdated Empire men, Etonian losers, colonial riff-raff, and uprooted Eurotrash. They exist to be easily shot full of holes by any passing fanatic. The monkish czar of the KGB, known only as Karla (played in tantalizing, wordless snippets by Patrick Stewart), gains great menace and power from his position in a totalitarian system, but is eventually rendered lost and desperate within that system by his one, human lapse. If George is the hero, and Karla the villain, it only comes out in the fine details; George merely split with his wife, where Karla sent his to the Gulag. Amongst these paranoid, professionally existential, often borderline disreputable people who become spies, sex and money are eternal currencies, whilst the most successful and powerful are those who largely avoid these temptations. In this, the enigmatic Smiley and his great nemesis Karla seem to stand ahead of the pack, and the battle between them is enacted not only in institutions but in the bedroom. Smiley has to contend constantly with the open secret that his estranged wife Ann (Sian Phillips) had an affair with Bill Haydon, and Haydon’s own omnivorous appetites also long ago included Prideaux as his partner in both business and pleasure. In between them are people with a kaleidoscopic range of grubby rendezvous and amusing foibles. Ricky Tarr, a kind of extremely low-rent James Bond wannabe, plays the noble romantic with Irina, but he’s actually a seedy bigamist who only accidentally helps Smiley through a ruse involving one of his wives he has a kid with.
There’s a moment about 45 minutes into Tinker Tailor when George polishes his glasses and slides them on as he asks a pointed question of Tarr, the timbre of his voice and the set of his face changed subtly yet entirely, providing one of Guinness’s most sublime bits of acting in his career: it’s Smiley’s equivalent of girding himself for battle, and the Cold Warrior lurking within his nondescript shell reveals itself with bracing clarity. Smiley, aging, determinedly anonymous, and old-school in his black mackintosh and homburg—the image of a bland civil servant—is the most unlikely of spy heroes, and it’s precisely this that makes him so interesting. He’s a bottomless well of both his own and other peoples’ secrets, and his own discursive, politely dissembling style only occasionally slips. Whilst Ann is the commonly known adulterer in their marriage, what Smiley’s befuddled detachment cost them both in that regard is ambiguous. A genius as a user of people, he’s almost a total dud as a social being, a quality that makes him all the better a spy. People tend to project their own anxieties and wants onto his becalmed exterior: for some, his visits are the god-sent appearances of a guardian angel, and for others, the calls of the grim reaper. Whereas the motivations of others are clear enough, for example, Guillam, who wants to uncover the mole who certainly cost the lives of many of his agents, Smiley seems both more mechanical and yet also deeper.
Le Carré’s stories are often cited as the antiseptic, realistic ripostes to the fantasies of James Bond, and that’s fair enough, though it’s a bit unfair to the surprising terseness of some of Ian Fleming’s writing and also a bit reductive to Le Carré’s talents and the texture of these adaptations. They’re shot through with the cool, yet empathetic cynicism and the utterly parched humour and irony of Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and Somerset Maugham, writers who surely influenced Le Carré, and the blend of the mundane and the surreally intense is quite Hitchcockian. Lacon’s name gives a tip of the hat to the laconic humour that’s prevalent throughout. One of the more specific beauties of Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People is that they’re in no hurry whatsoever. That’s usually a put-down, but the gravitas and moodiness of the stories, as well as their hypnotic outlay of detail great and small, demands rigidly controlled pacing. This is perfectly suited to television’s procedural intimacy, and also most effectively reveals the way Smiley’s method takes the smallest fragments of a puzzle, which would seem utterly opaque to others, and synthesises from them theories for which he then carefully accumulates evidence. Pattern and truth resolve from apparently bottomless murk, all mixed up with behaviour and personality, as well as political and social sensibility. Stylistically, the series are masterpieces of unyielding yet suggestive minimalism, right from their keenly illustrative opening title sequences—in Tinker Tailor, a set of Matryoshka dolls being stripped down to the last figure, which has no face; for Smiley’s People, shots of decaying paint on wood and an exploding piece of chalk redolent of the entwining macro and microcosmic forces at play.
Tinker Tailor, in particular, is also a situational study in group dynamics, the way certain cabals of personality types linked by aptitude as well as attitude can take over any workplace. The manipulations of the mole have been to promote the bullying, greedy, barely competent Alleline into the top job precisely because he’s not particularly good at anything but the appearance of competence, which is prized beyond all other things, whilst Smiley discerns clearly that the people who are best at their job have all been exiled because they were the ones most able to discern the real problems. The fact that Haydon, the most likeable, colourful, and impudent of The Circus proves to be the mole, is the cruelest stroke for all concerned, and yet there’s something inevitable about it. The first time I watched Tinker Tailor, I said aloud within the first two minutes that Haydon, thanks to his ineffably cute entrance with a cup of tea, had to be a traitor, and five hours later I found I was right.
There’s also a complex web of both amity and hatred that can transcend nominal boundaries to be unravelled. Smiley’s relationship with Karla proves perhaps to have more genuine intimacy than he has with anyone in his immediate life, and the affection that can develop between enemies often proves more durable than that between the members of The Circus. Amongst the people feeding off the intelligence services, pimps and blackmailers sometimes prove to have deeper morals and more immediate motives, for example, Otto “The Magician” Leipzig (Vladek Sheybal) and his bordello-managing partner Claus Kretzschmar (Mario Adorf) in Smiley’s People, than the higher-class opportunists running them. “Smiley’s people” is more than just a work group: it’s almost a metaphor for people who are capable of doing their jobs with the minimum of balderdash, and part of the background drama and satire of the two series is generational change, from the aging, slightly clapped-out, yet deeply professional WWII generation Smiley represents, to bombastic neocons like Alleline (whose backers, Smiley says, were “golfers and Conservatives”) and to an abrasively lower-class, brassier breed represented in Smiley’s People by new Circus chief Saul Enderby (Barry Foster) and his underling Strickland (Bill Patterson). Connie refers nostalgically to “her boys, her lovely boys” in speaking of the sexy, nostalgic allure of what had been a lustre that’s long since been buffed off The Circus and everything involved with the Cold War. Haydon’s motives for turning traitor seem inextricably bound up with his own disappointment at Britain’s shrinking place in world affairs and his sense of being cheated of being a potential master of the universe.
If Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a kind of Grecian concision to the way its pieces fit together, Smiley’s People is a bit more the blockbuster, a longer, more sprawling work. Whereas Tinker Tailor was transcribed by Arthur Hopcraft, Le Carré cowrote the teleplay of Smiley’s People, and if it lacks the mordant symmetry of its predecessor, more of Le Carré’s deftly funny and revealing vignettes, and supple emotional punches, slip through. At the end of Tinker Tailor, Smiley is essentially in charge of The Circus, left to rebuild the organisation almost from scratch. (The middle chapter of the trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy, wasn’t filmed because of its potentially costly Hong Kong setting). This time around, the path is even more torturous, from a seemingly random series of events to a career reckoning for Smiley, who has again retired after handing over The Circus to new blood. Madame Ostrakova (Eileen Atkins), a Russian exile living in Paris, is visited by slimy Soviet bullyboy Oleg Kirov (Dudley Sutton, best known for his contribution as the chief witch-hunter to Ken Russell’s The Devils) and offered the chance to have the daughter she left behind in Russia sent to live with her. Ostrakova realises that the girl in the photos Kirov hands her can’t be her daughter, and so contacts the émigré organization run by the once-fearsome, but now aged Estonian General (Curd Jürgens, in his last ever role). The General contacts Leipzig, and what Leipzig digs up gets both him and The General murdered. Smiley is called in again by Lacon, who’s sliding into something of a featherheaded mid-life crisis after his own wife has left him, because the General had demanded Smiley act as his go-between with The Circus.
Lacon expects it to prove a cash grab by some has-beens, but Smiley hates the way the General, a rigid and brave former warrior, was patronised in the new atmosphere. Digging into his final actions, Smiley uncovers what Leipzig gave the General: a photo negative showing Leipzig and Kirov together in bed together with prostitutes, a proof that could destroy Kirov and, more importantly, recalls to Smiley a long-buried titbit of gossip that Karla had been using Kirov years before to find ripe candidates to palm the same female impostor onto. This lady proves to be Karla’s own schizophrenic daughter, Tatiana (Tusse Silberg), the inevitably psychologically shattered offspring of the Machiavellian genius and a partisan heroine he had executed when she went “soft on the Revolution.” Knowing very well that her disease can’t be treated properly in the USSR, Karla has her in a clinic in Switzerland, and wants to secure her as a Western citizen. With differing levels and brands of help of Esterhase, Guillam, Connie, and outsiders like Ostrakova and Kretzschmar, Smiley uncovers this secret. When he ensnares the hapless former economic professor and diplomat Grigoriev (Michael Lonsdale) Karla uses to keep an eye on his daughter and pay for her treatment, Smiley finally has everything he needs to force Karla into defecting.
The change in tone from Tinker Tailor is minor but distinct, and readily observable in Smiley, who, in operating as a “rogue elephant” with barely any official brief, determines to be less delicate and veiled in his efforts and attitudes. That resolve proves occasionally brutal in his desire to be surgical, as when he forcibly reminds Hilary (Norma West), a burnt-out former Circus agent who’s now Connie’s business and romantic partner, of how the laws of The Circus still bind her. Everyone wants him to go away and let them forget the still-binding parts they played in the Cold War and its still living legacy, but his fresh force of purpose (“I’ve been sleepwalking. I’ve woken up!” he declares to Connie) prods him into newly heroic territory. Smiley ventures into the no man’s land between East and West Germany where Leipzig lives, finds his battered corpse, and has to contend with Gypsy louts who suggest some waiting species of barbarian waiting to inherit the earth in one of its greyest zones. Smiley then returns to rescue Ostrakova from her Parisian apartment where she’s been besieged as Karla’s agent assassins, calling in the aid of Guillam (played this time by the equally good, if less appropriately steely, Michael Byrne), who’s been given the cushy post of head of the Parisian office. There’s a lovely moment when George goes to sleep on Guillam’s couch, and Guillam lays a blanket over the taciturn, yet very human old warrior.
Such terrific little touches dot both series, from the many, many choice bits of dialogue to the revealing peccadilloes that constantly show up characters’ pretensions. Amongst my favourites in Tinker Tailor are when Smiley goes to visit Prideuax, who, still recovering from bullet wounds and torture and working as a private school teacher, warns Smiley, “If you’re not alone, I’ll break your neck!” and other moments that depict Prideaux’s hero-worship by Roach, a schoolboy who’s a budding Smiley. In Smiley’s People there’s a particularly funny moment in which some sympathetic operatives who are try to coerce Grigoriev applaud him when he stands up to his obnoxious wife over the phone. Smiley’s visit to Kretzschmar’s “nightclub,” wiping the steam off his glasses in waiting through several live sex acts, is likewise hilarious in its incongruity. The climax of Tinker Tailor is not action pizzazz—though the sequence in which Smiley and Guillam smoke out the mole is suspense-mongering at its most efficient—but Smiley’s interview with an emotionally shattered, imprisoned Haydon. Richardson’s acting in the scene is some of the most perfectly judged I’ve ever seen, and remarkable even amongst a cast that is an embarrassment of riches, from the fitting career caps for Jürgens and Knox, to small roles, including Michael Gough and Ingrid Pitt as the General’s dowdy employees, and Alan Rickman as a hotel clerk, years before he would appear in a feature film. Reid, as Connie, makes the most of her character’s plumy wit, and Atkins as Ostrakova is especially good when upon receiving bad news from Smiley, absorbs it in a slight pause and gets on with her life. Weak points in the cast tend to stand out a mile, like Paul Herzberg’s overly fruity accent as the General’s young go-between in Smiley’s People.
It’s Guinness who had the biggest, hardest job, a couple of years after Star Wars had made him both exponentially more famous and rich than he had been before. Guinness reportedly fretted anxiously about his performance even whilst filming the second series. That’s not so surprising, in spite of what ought to have been Guinness’s unshakable professional confidence by that stage, because what Smiley is thinking, and even what he means when he’s speaking, is so often barely apparent and yet detectable on the finest frequencies, and Guinness’s unswerving dedication to realizing Smiley in such a fashion was a sustained challenge. The scene of Smiley’s final exchange with Haydon is especially refined work, his boiling yet rigidly controlled anger only apparent in slight fumbling and over-large gestures, and the care with which he gets Haydon to give back his pen, in pointed contrast to how he let Karla, who he respected, keep the cigarette lighter that was Smiley’s gift from Ann. Tinker Tailor’s director, John Irvin, went on to an initially interesting cinematic career, adapting Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War (1984) with a similar necessary feel for minutiae to balance the action, and the underrated, no-nonsense war film Hamburger Hill (1987). Smiley’s People helmsman Simon Langton, on the other hand, stuck mostly to TV work, turning in a very different kind of cult hit with the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that made Colin Firth a star. The emotional charge of the final sequences of Smiley’s People isn’t small, and yet Le Carré’s deeply ambivalent tone is retained. Even as George finally brings his nemesis to heel and theoretically avenges so much loss, the two old and haggard men only glare at each other, the ghost of Tatiana, emblem and offspring of their way of life, as an hysterical, dissociative mess, haunts them both, and Smiley’s lighter, dropped by Karla on the ground, remains there. It’s no victory he’s gained, only an end. Both he and Karla are ultimately two old men lost in no man’s land. The cumulative result is television at its greatest.
The teleplays of Dennis Potter use richly textured language and pop culture from various eras to elucidate his major themes of memory, sex, and deep religiosity. The crucible in which all of these elements worked to their utmost was The Singing Detective (1986), a 415-minute miniseries that showed a creator in complete command of his métier. Of course, the elaborate play of illness, fantasy, nostalgia, pop music of the 1930s, and love’s failures found in that herculean drama did not spring from Potter’s head fully formed. Six years earlier, Potter premiered Cream in My Coffee, a well-developed prototype for some of the more fanciful and rawly emotional elements of The Singing Detective. A drama of domestic disharmony, Cream in My Coffee moves between 1934, when Bernard Wishler (Peter Chelsom) and his girlfriend Jean (Shelagh McLeod) are trying on sex before marriage at Eastbourne’s posh Grand Hotel, and 1980, when Bernard (Lionel Jeffries) and Jean (Peggy Ashcroft) return to the seaside resort in an attempt to repair Bernard’s dying body and their cancerous marriage.
The grandiloquent world in which Bernard and Jean’s love flowers is already in decline, but patrons of the Victorian-era resort are determinedly taking no notice. A large contingent of impeccably appointed servants whose manners and solicitude have taken on an entitled edge attend to the ladies and gents who take tea to the strains of a string trio and dress in formal wear for dinner and dancing to the orchestra playing in the hotel’s grand ballroom. As Jean and Bernard move excitedly to their suite (“one of the best in the hotel,” their porter [Will Stampe] assures them), the sound of wooden curtain pulls knocking against a hall window attracts Jean to look out and admire the grounds. Once in the room, they marvel at how wonderful it is, as the porter stands ready to escort them to any corner of the suite, including the bedroom. A shy and embarrassed Bernard declines and overtips the porter. “I’m not good at these things,” he says to Jean, who is shocked by his extravagance.
The present-day trip to the same room is decidely less a shared thrill for the older Bernard and Jean. Jean, trying to get into the spirit of an enjoyable holiday, stops to admire the sound of the seagulls outside that same hall window. The porter (Leo Dolan) says the sound can make one quite barmy after a while; Bernard, assessing the porter, offers an insulting “clearly.” After a quick inspection of the room, Bernard can only say that it seems small and shabby. Jean says, “We’ve gotten used to better things,” and chirps that at least it’s close to home. “Close to the hospital you mean,” Bernard says. “No, close to home,” she retorts and then decides to unpack. Her hurry to settle in irritates her husband, though she says sensibly, “We don’t want our clothes to crease, do we?” Uttering this rhetorical question further angers Bernard, who accuses Jean of constantly trying to make up his mind for him.
The old saying that familiarity breeds contempt certainly applies to Jean and Bernard as they suffer their way through a long, ill-fated marriage. The two are from different social spheres, with Bernard the educated heir to a retailing fortune given to metaphorical thinking and Jean a literal-minded postal clerk who seems to live quite literally in the moment. Even during their romantic getaway, the pair fights constantly, with Bernard fearing looking ridiculous because of Jean’s obvious and gauche behavior while behaving like a snob and bigot himself. But familiarity in the biblical sense may be the worse problem. Although Jean and Bernard say they are to be married in September, it seems rather likely that Bernard could be exaggerating his commitment simply to bed Jean, whom he finds voluptuously beautiful. Jean is almost certainly not a virgin, and she flirts with Jack Butcher (Martin Shaw), the oily, seductive singer with the dance band, in front of Bernard. Despite his jealous protectiveness toward Jean, Bernard leaves her alone at the hotel to rush home on learning his father has been killed. She views his stiff arm to her involvement with his family as another slight to her standing in his life, gets drunk, and screws Butcher. Like other cuckoldings in Potter’s work, the long-term effects are corrosive.
Cream in My Coffee spends most of its time in the past, giving us a chance to contrast the elegance and romance of Empire England with the erosion not only of Jean and Bernard’s marriage, but also standards of service and cultural wit. The popular songs from the ’30s—a Potter trademark—are clever and danceable, certainly a huge improvement over the ’80s rock music the Wishlers are subjected to in the ballroom (“I want to go to the movies/Why don’t you take me to the movies/Flicker Flicker Flicker Flicker/Movies/Why don’t you take me to the movies”). Nonetheless, this seemingly graceful world is a worm-riddled phantom corporealized only within Victorian throwbacks like the Grand Hotel, and the changing times reveal not only what was lost, but also what needed to go. The mature Bernard is incredibly rude to the immigrant wait staff, hurling slurs with a venom that has Jean apologizing in embarrassment all through her meals, and Bernard’s unrestrained verbal abuse of his wife is shameful.
Watching Shaw lipsynch from the bandstand presages the look Michael Gambon would assume in The Singing Detective for his fantasy singing interludes. Butcher is a far more dubious character, however, than Philip Marlow, thus the lyrics, while offering an ideal of love to which Bernard and Jean aspire (“You’re the cream in my coffee/You’re the salt in my stew/You will always be my necessity/I’d be lost without you”), seem particularly hollow and ironic. The songs of sexual innuendo Shaw sings (“Thank your father/Thank your mother/Thank them both for meeting up with one another/Thank the horse that drew the buggy that night/Thank your dad for being just a bit tight”) seem more to the point.
The play offers beautiful dreams of happiness wrapped together with disappointment and death. Bernard enacts a sweet, almost childish seduction of Jean, only to be interrupted by the phone call informing him of his father’s death. The mature Jean watches some young men toss a young woman into the pool below their window despite her protests that she can’t swim. Her body sinks, and the boys jump in to rescue her, only to find she has been playing a trick on them. Most affecting, the knocking of the wooden curtain pulls spook Bernard every time he hears them, conjuring premonitions of death, “like knocking on your coffin,” he says with a shiver. The association of sex and death is plain and yet artfully rendered.
The production design and cinematography are particularly noteworthy for a television play. A gauzy glow inflects the flashbacks, but the present isn’t completely present. A warm sepia envelopes the modern hotel environs. Bernard complains about the old people in the sparsely populated tea room, seemingly unaware that he’s pushing 70 himself. Later, Bernard finds himself thrown back in time, hallucinating that the young people at the hotel for a dinner/dance of the type that was a nightly occurrence in his day are actually people from the ’30s. Some interesting camera angles frame Bernard and Jean as relics of the past; for example, in one scene, when Jean is returning to her room, a shadow of the Victorian ironwork in the hallway mixes with her shadow, as though she were a piece with it, as well as a prisoner of a bad choice made long ago.
Cream in My Coffee and two other Potter productions from 1980, Blade on the Feather and Rain on the Roof, are available on a three-DVD set called Dennis Potter: 3 to Remember. The set also includes Dennis Potter’s last interview. This collection, of which Cream in My Coffee is the standout, provides an excellent look at Potter’s work near the height of his powers.
Directors: Don Chaffey, Pat Jackson, Patrick McGoohan, Peter Graham Scott, David Tomblin
By Roderick Heath
The Prisoner, an epochal surrealist-satiric thriller series, feels as much a commentary on the television show itself as it is on politics or society: the construction of a bogus living space that’s constantly filmed; the random-seeming changes of cast; the ongoing, enclosed situation that may have no discernable outcome; the unvarying efforts to create and force story and character arcs and spark behaviours with predetermined ends whilst mimicking the happenstance flow of life. Quite apart from the anticipation of the inane horrors of reality television, even the episodes that bend the boundaries of genre, transposing the essential plot into Western and comic book settings, reveals the often interchangeable elements of sausage-factory entertainment. Star and co-mastermind Patrick McGoohan was partly inspired by his own exhausting workload on his hit show Danger Man. He and key collaborators George Markstein and David Tomblin presented a perfect metaphor for the way television, cranked out day and night, with shows that either run impossibly long or get cancelled before they can logically and succinctly end, becomes a kind of ongoing existential nightmare.
The Prisoner wasn’t one of those shows of the kind I’ve mentioned above; at just 17 episodes, it describes a fascinating and relatively contiguous narrative back when that was still a rare idea. McGoohan sold the concept of The Prisoner to ITV boss Lew Grade after considerable wrangling over how long the series would be, and the final episode count sports some obvious filler instalments towards the end (not to say they aren’t entertaining anyway). Although it’s not a uniformly executed unit, the core concept, and the way the major elements are introduced and illustrated, possess energy unique and obvious more than 40 years later. I’ll try not to bore you with comments on how the show anticipated more recent creations like Lost, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Dennis Potter’s works and myriad other permutations throughout popular culture (though I think I just did); the list of influences could go on and on, especially on scifi movies since the early 1970s. And that’s not to mention a pitch-perfect episode of The Simpsons in 2000, when about 80% of the audience would have had no idea what all those gags about Number Six were referring to.
It’s taken me a long time to catch up with the series, and the experience was certainly tinged bittersweet in finally watching it over a year after McGoohan’s death. McGoohan had a terrific, compact force as a screen actor, and even as late as Braveheart (1995), it was delightful to watch him galvanise overblown claptrap into something like delicious melodrama. The Prisoner’s later episodes were affected by McGoohan’s work on the film Ice Station Zebra (1968), which is chiefly worth watching today for the spectacle of McGoohan giving Rock Hudson an acting lesson. Considering the deep involvement he had in The Prisoner, it is, in its way, testimony to a talent that never was quite fulfilled—but then again the compressed brilliance of the series with its unmistakeable tropes and intricately orchestrated ideas was a hard act to repeat. The atmosphere of The Village, a fake community with its false front of jollity, jaunty uniforms, omnipresent sloganeering and surveillance, and the roaming, shapeless, unnerving “Rover” security guards, is minutely conceived and indelibly portrayed.
The Prisoner accounts the experience of its unnamed protagonist when, having abruptly quit his post with a British government intelligence service, he’s gassed and awakens some time later in a room that looks like his own home, but proves to be a replica. He’s now in The Village, a locality that soon proves to be both a jail and a home for “people who know too much or too little,” where prisoners and Guardians are indistinguishable except for certain elite members, and everyone has a number, not a name. Coded as Number Six, the hero contends with a power system that is arranged to flatten all resistance, and quickly distinguishes the few genuine rebels from natural conformists. Although he, because of his nominal importance, is spared most of the worst methods on hand, Number Six is still subjected to a merciless and gruelling procession of manipulations, plots, and scientific procedures to crush his spirit and extract his reasons for resigning. The Village is located on a remote island, and escape is virtually impossible thanks to the Rovers, giant plastic balls that swallow up escapees. In each episode, Number Six faces off against Number Two, the supposedly elected administrator of the island, but the person in the post in constantly changing and answers to a mysterious Number One and the rest of their organisation.
The first episode, ‘Arrival,’ establishes most of the essentials with clarity and a surprisingly cinematic style, with the rapid, choppy editing and forceful, almost abstracting camerawork offering an expressive intensity TV still doesn’t offer much. The debut was put together by Don Chaffey, who had directed Jason and the Argonauts (1963) for Ray Harryhausen and worked on several Hammer films. The filmic, pop-art-infused look and structure of the series is just one of its stand-out qualities, and though some episodes dip close to the look and plotting of more average action series like The Saint, The Avengers, and Danger Man itself, that’s more the exception than the rule. The bewildering clash of textures that is The Village—the faux-Italianate architecture of the town centre, the seaside pleasantness of the neighbouring port with its mocking fake boat, and ultra-futuristic hidden abodes of the Guardians—establishes the matryoshka-like multiplicity of hidden truths. A serious question for Number Six is whose “side” runs The Village. Although clearly still conceived in the schismatic structures of the Cold War, the “sides” are kept purposefully vague, and soon enough, the notion that there are or soon will be no sides, that The Village is the future world in miniature, is introduced with relish by one of the Number Twos. A distinct pleasure of the show, over and above its Byzantine complications, is the impressive array of then-contemporary British acting talent, with the likes of Eric Portman, Leo McKern, Derren Nesbitt, George Baker, Guy Doleman, and Mary Morris popping up throughout, particularly in the Number Two spot.
It’s bordering on the obvious to say that aspects of The Prisoner are certainly late-’60s modish, with aspects of its style and satirical approach now hackneyed. And yet, in other ways, it’s even more relevant today than when it was made, now that Britain’s been turned into a giant CCTV playground, the spectacles of Guantanamo Bay and the War on Terror’s renditions, and an increasingly high level of distracting gibberish infuses contemporary media and political sources. The dark heart of The Village’s purpose is glimpsed in brief, but telling vignettes when Number Six visits the hospital and sees people being subjected to therapies to make them compliant members of the society—methods that both take aim at quack psychiatric practises of the era, such as the aversion therapies being inflicted on homosexual people, and also anticipating today’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The image of the prisoners caught by a Rover, their faces distorted in terrified masks while being smothered by plastic, is a grotesque one. The show’s opening credits are ritualised in depicting Number Six’s kidnapping, turning his plight into an Oroborus-like experience of constantly awakening in the strange locale, his shout of “I am not a number, I am a free man!” met with the hilarity of whoever’s Number Two that week.
Whilst Number Six is supposedly being saved from the worst punishments of the operation, the cruelty that is part and parcel of The Village (underneath the smiling threat of the Number Twos and the stern, hysterical outrage of the citizens’ committees, and inherent in the various manipulations enforced on Number Six) is mind-boggling—at one point, in ‘Many Happy Returns,’ he’s allowed to escape the island temporarily as a mocking birthday present. And yet the series suggests many people put up with such sadisms every day and call it being a member of society. Not all the anticipations are negative: it’s hard to believe that modern internet-fuelled alternative culture wasn’t anticipated and indeed partly based on Number Six’s methods, and also those of his fellow prisoners. In ‘It’s Your Funeral,’ the villagers who are still resisting indulge in a game they call “jamming” (hence the ’90s fad for anarchic “culture jamming”?), feeding the authorities disinformation: “It’s one of the most important ways of fighting back!” declares one participant (Annette Andre). But their need to muddy the waters is then used by their enemies for their own ends.
Whilst Number Six is an empathetic hero, the notion he’s not all that much different to his oppressors is repeatedly mooted. Thanks to McGoohan’s superlative, sustained performance, he’s cool, relentless, and aggressive, self-satisfied in his public schoolboy ideal of rugged individuality, seemingly as asocial outside The Village as in it. His private war with the world is only literalised when he’s put there, a notion that echoes when he finally escapes the island in the last episode, but with the world now taking on aspects of The Village. McGoohan’s extremely Catholic dislike of playing love scenes means the only time Number Six kisses a woman is when his mind’s been transferred into another body (that of Nigel Stock) and then it’s a fiancée (Zena Walker), daughter of his boss, who hadn’t been mentioned before; that aspect only reinforces the miasma of alienation that surrounds Number Six. In ‘Checkmate,’ Number Six puts together a cabal of resistors after developing a method to discern prisoners from jailers though their behaviour, only to have his escape plot foiled when his people turn on him because he acts more like a Guardian. In ‘Hammer Into Anvil,’ Number Six is at both his most righteous and most vicious: he uses the atmosphere of paranoia, distrust, and elusive truth for his own ends, when he sets out to destroy the current Number Two (Patrick Cargill) after he causes the suicide of a woman he’s interrogating, by faking evidence that suggests Number Two is being plotted against by his own side, reducing his quarry to a quivering, hysterical mental wreck.
There’s a tone of satire of macho values and more specifically the action-man ethos of a lot of ’60s pop culture (McGoohan and Markstein disagreed for years afterwards as to whether Number Six was Danger Man’s protagonist John Drake), with the fact that Number Six is physically indomitable—a champion boxer and fencer, he never loses a fight where he isn’t outnumbered five to one—and yet this usually does him no good at all. In ‘A Change of Mind,’ he’s relentlessly hounded precisely because he resists a couple of bullies, a touch that might remind a few of us of high school. Number Six’s great mental fitness usually serves him better in resisting all the attempts to subsume his personality and distort his sense of reality, whether they involve fooling him into thinking he’s an impostor created by the Guardians to take on the “real” Number Six, in ‘The Schizoid Man’; making him think he’s undergone a behaviour-controlling lobotomy, in ‘A Change of Mind’; or, most bizarrely, feeding him full of psychedelic drugs and making him play out a western scenario, in ‘Living in Harmony.’ The latter episode introduces a particularly good performance from Alexis Kanner as The Kid, a young subordinate of Number Two posing as a hotshot gunslinger, who’s driven mad by that pose and kills a woman and then himself—only to be resurrected later as the spirit of youthful, countercultural rebellion.
Some of the show’s metaphors were corny even in its time—the characters being likened to chess pawns in ‘Checkmate,’ Number Six sabotaging The Village’s controlling supercomputer project by asking it the illogical question, “Why?”—but many others are still potent. In the pungently funny satire ‘Free For All’ (an episode McGoohan wrote and directed), Number Six is encouraged by the current Number Two (Eric Portman) to run for his job in the annual elections because his reputation as an aggressive resister lends the vote an veneer of authenticity. What follows analyses the processing of authentic statesmen into regulation politicians, as The Village journalist replaces his initial lack of comment into standard political cliché before he’s then drugged and brainwashed into speaking mindless rhetoric to wildly enthusiastic crowds. He wins the election, but then the woman (Rachel Herbert) who’s been his assigned driver throughout the campaign and has spoken only in foreign gibberish and acted childishly slaps him silly and imperiously takes Number Two’s chair. In ‘The Chimes of Big Ben,’ Number Six enters an art contest where all the other artists, having succumbed to the cult of star-fucking, have all produced works that idolise the only celebrity about—Number Two.
McKern was the obvious choice to bring back for the final two episodes, ‘Once Upon a Time’ and ‘Fall Out,’ where the series takes a wild swing towards allegorical surrealism and doesn’t come back: ‘Fall Out’ was nominated for a Hugo Award, losing out to 2001: A Space Odyssey of all things. McKern’s Number Two is brought back to break Number Six at all costs, with the death of one of them certain. Number Two tries to deconstruct Number Six by devolving his mind back to childhood and leading him through his experiences, only to find that Number Six’s presumed asocialness is actually derived from his social values, and his individualism finally triumphs. Number Two is revived, along with The Kid, as examples of failed rebellion to contrast Number Six, who’s presented to a bizarre cabal of masked people, each representing some segment of society, ready to accept him as ruler. But when he is ushered in to meet Number One, the head honcho proves to be a lunatic wearing a monkey mask, and the whole enterprise is a self-perpetuating delusion. The series resolves in a kind of hallucinatory anarchy close to that same year’s If…., as Number Six, Number Two, and The Kid machine-gun their captors to the strains of “All You Need is Love” and flee by a mysterious underground route directly into London. The technocratic world of the Guardians coalesces into a final vision of a madman blasting off into outer space, whilst the three rebels ride along the highway in a cage, dancing to “Dem Dry Bones.” It’s a finish that manages to be threatening and elating all at once, as close to genius as anything I’ve ever seen in television. l
“Shiralee” is the Australian term for the bundle of worldly possessions carried by itinerant workers famously known from the unofficial anthem of Australia, “Waltzing Matilda,” as swagmen. In this television adaptation of D’Arcy Niland’s classic book, the infrequent voiceover narrator calls a shiralee a burden, and reckons that the swagman at the heart of the story, Macauley (Bryan Brown), has two of them—his bundle and his daughter Buster (Rebecca Smart). How a tough guy like Macauley ended up dragging his 9-year-old daughter through the Australian bush, sleeping around a campfire and walking miles in the harsh sun, is only part of the story. This wonderful family film creates a time and place you can practically taste and shows how the bond between a parent and child can dissolve even the most stoically borne disappointments and open up possibilities abandoned long ago.
The film flashes back to 1939, when Macauley, the product of an Adelaide orphanage, has left city life behind him and struck off for the hinterlands. He enters a general store and asks for clothing suitable for hard travel. The shopkeeper asks if he’s going on horseback or by foot, and when told foot, slaps down a sturdy pair of walking shoes. “Socks or no?” “Socks,” answers Macauley. “City boy,” the shopkeeper surmises. Macauley eventually pitches up in Eucla, Western Australia, just across the South Australia border, where he lands a job as an apprentice butcher to Thaddeus (Simon Chilvers) and is immediately smitten with Thad’s daughter Lily (Noni Hazlehurst). She returns his affections, much to the annoyance of her current beau Tony (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). He arranges for Lily to think Macauley spent the night with another woman, and when Macauley finds out, he confronts Tony, only to be beaten unconscious, doused with liquor, and dumped in Thad’s ransacked butcher shop. Drawing his own conclusions from the evidence, Thad puts the unconscious Macauley on a train out of Eucla.
Skipping past World War II, the film takes us to 1946. Macauley is working for a traveling carnival as the resident boxer who takes on locals who hope to beat him and win a cash prize. He’s content enough with his carney family until he runs into a man he used to know in Eucla and is introduced to the man’s wife—Lily. Still in love with her, he disobeys orders to let his next local contender win the bout and takes all his hurt and anger out on the hapless bloke. That evening, he informs the carneys that he and Marge (Lorna Lesley), a young barker on the carnival midway, are getting married. The carnival owners warn him about making such a rash match, but he says that the only woman he wanted to marry is already married and reckons that he and Marge can make a go of it.
The film moves forward to 1953, and a small apartment in Adelaide, where Buster watches her mother Marge apply lipstick in preparation for a date. To keep Buster quiet, Marge doses her milk with some liquor. Unfortunately for Marge, Macauley picks that night to come home from his work at rural farms and sheep stations and finds her in flagrante delicto with a town councilman. After breaking the man’s jaw and ribs and smelling liquor on Buster’s breath, he throws the money he made at Marge and walks out with Buster tucked under his arm. So begins his adventure as a single dad.
Macauley is a sun-scorched and solitary man who likes to stay on the move and avoid personal ties. Buster is a typical child who squeals with delight at finding a caterpillar, complains of hunger, runs almost to tripping to keep pace with her hard-stepping father, and worms her way into his heart and ours almost effortlessly. Rebecca Smart is a very natural, appealing young actress whose initial cries for her mother (comforted by an elderly woman on the train she and Macaulay are taking back to the bush) give way to a dogged devotion to her father. He allows her to keep a giraffe plush toy a friend has given her as long as she carries it herself, and it is through “Gooby” that Buster expresses her feelings to her skittish dad and anyone else who is paying attention.
The relationship between father and daughter is somewhat lopsided. Buster falls into the rhythms of Macauley’s life and forms her attachment easily. But Mac comes to love Buster through admiration at her determination and abilities, not through some magical, idealized bond. When she takes a hatchet to chop a piece of wood for their campfire, rather than pull the tool away from her in fear, he places the branch so she will be able to strike it more effectively. A look of pride rises to his face at what a tough and resourceful person she is. It’s so refreshing to see a child treated as an actual person instead of an appendage or a porcelain doll in need of constant protection.
Macauley and a now-widowed Lily meet again, still in love but separated by fear, and Mac reluctantly goes to work for her shearing sheep. Ogilvie’s camera lingers over the shearer quarters and takes its time showing the shearing process, breathing life into the work that has filled Mac’s life. When Lily intervenes when Buster comes down with a bad case of the flu, Mac yells that he doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to raise his kid and sweats the flu out of her during an anxious night. Sadly, he storms off Lily’s farm without realizing that he does, indeed, need help being a parent. When Marge comes back on the scene and threatens his custody of Buster, his love has grown to the point where he is willing to meet Buster and Lily halfway and give up his solitary—and selfish—existence.
The small-town South Australia locations where Ogilvie shoots probably still have buildings that date back to at least 1939; adding some period clothing, sundries, and autos locates the characters over time but doesn’t take away appreciably from the timeless quality of this rural existence. A square dance in the 1939 section is shown at length as a joyous event that celebrates the sense of community among the bush towns; even something as ordinary as Thad’s death makes all the local newspapers, and the bush “telegraph” spreads the word of a crisis Buster and Mac face. Mac may be a loner, but he’s far from alone. But Aboriginals are absent save for one who travels with the carnival, and the look he gets from the locals suggests he is a highly unusual and not altogether welcome sight.
Bryan Brown is a yeoman actor with a somewhat limited range, but he is perfectly cast as Macauley. Handsome and rugged, he can project pleasure with a smile or clamp down his emotions with the utmost restraint. His growing relationship with Buster is believable and comes to a climax of emotional release that is very moving and realistic. The supporting cast is terrific, including Lorna Lesley, who plays a spurned and bitter wife with a pathetic intensity, and Simon Chilvers, who is decent, understated, and commanding of respect. Even the somewhat melodramatic ending feels grounded in reality and elicits emotions from us that the rest of the film has earned. The Shiralee is must viewing for anyone who values family films with life and depth.
Nigel Kneale virtually invented the traditions of television science fiction and helped define the basics of serial drama itself with his The Quatermass Experiment, broadcast on the BBC over six weeks in 1953. That work suddenly expanded the potential scope of television programming and science fiction in the public eye with its eerie, utterly minimalist telling of the sorry fate of the first astronaut sent into space and returning to Earth infected by an alien virus. The subsequent two Quatermass serials, in 1955 and 1957, and the films made of them by Hammer Studios, became permanent models for future genre creators. Prickly, dismissive, and often badly utilised throughout his career, Kneale nonetheless still stands as one of television’s most inventive and intelligent figures, one who has perhaps had a deeper impact on popular culture than many realise, considering his influence on filmmakers like Steven Spielberg (whose script for Poltergeist was reputedly influenced by Kneale’s work) and especially John Carpenter. Sadly, Carpenter’s admiration led to a painful interlude, when Kneale wrote a script for him that became the disappointingly realised Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983). As if by way of compensation—unappreciated by Kneale—Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) paid overt tribute to The Stone Tape and credited its screenplay to one “Martin Quatermass”.
Nonetheless, where works by other reputable names of early television, such as Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling, now often seem pretty trite and obvious, Kneale’s work remains nuanced and intriguing. Like most professional writers, Kneale tackled a many disparate projects, including many adaptations, but his personal work was usually marked by recurring fascinations with mystery and the intangible, with the distance between the most elevated and most elemental characteristics in human beings, and the blurred ground between science and supernatural, all of which fueled Quatermass and the Pit (1957), still one of the greatest pieces of television created. Another of Kneale’s insistent qualities was a delight in topicality, and his scripts tended to be infused with inevitably dated and yet still interesting, thought-provoking, and often lucidly prognosticative reflections on contemporary concerns. His work was often laced with bitingly cynical takes on corporatism, capitalism, the media, militarism, and politicians somewhat before it was fashionable to do so, and indeed contributed considerably to the intellectual climate of the ’60s. Later, his The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) predicted the rise of reality television with precision, and he was still successfully scaring the hell out of many people with his excellent adaptation of Susan Hill’s beloved spook story The Woman in Black, made in 1989, before his death in 2006.
The Stone Tape, made by the BBC in 1972 by Hungarian-born director Peter Sasdy, who made several fascinating, if uneven, films for Hammer around this time, reflects again Kneale’s curious angle on the science versus superstition schism, and commented with acuity on matters then much on the mind. The result is one of those little miracles of the medium which always seems fueled as much by the necessary constraints on it as anything: The Stone Tapes manages to be both thoroughly logical and concrete and yet also tantalisingly near-abstract in its story suggestions and final meaning. Kneale’s familiar topicality is also immediately manifest, in this instance, the paranoid, competitive reaction of western business to growing Japanese domination of home appliance technology, the globalisation of such technology, and the decline of British influence in it; more subtly but, finally, powerfully, the narrative infusion of an equally fashionable, feminist-hued parable.
The story commences with Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) arriving at a colossal Victorian country house that has just been converted into a research facility by Ryan Electrics, a successful, ambitious company that wants to take on the Japanese domination in recording technology. Jill, brittle and upset for reasons that take a while to emerge, panics when her Mini is nearly squashed between two trucks. The conversion of the house has been overseen by Roy “Collie” Collinson (Iain Cuthbertson), and taking charge of the new facility is Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), the high-powered, high-pressure boss of the company’s research team, and, as it happens, Jill’s lover. Still shaken and upset, she watches the raucous, jarring celebration of her fellow workers—all male—as they move into their new facility. Peter is, however, soon disquieted to learn that a basement room earmarked for computer storage has been left untouched by the renovators, who were dissuaded by strange phenomena.
Jill, who seems especially psychically sensitive, is horrified to glimpse a brief spectral vision of a screaming young serving maid, Louisa, who died in the room, but no one believes her. She and Peter dig into the house’s history and find it’s infamous for similar manifestations: a local publican, Alan (Michael Graham Cox), recalls hearing strange noises in the house as a child when he and his mates used to venture there, and one of his friends, Jackie, was driven insane when locked in there one night. Peter and Collie soon see and hear the apparition, but Peter, quickly regaining his composure, suggests to his team that they investigate the phenomena; rather than calling it a ghost, he considers it “a mass of data waiting to be interpreted.” Installing sound and video recording and computer equipment in the room, the researchers begin probing the mystery, but find their gear can’t register the phenomena in any way, and that it affects people to differing degrees: Jill is the most attuned, while one of the team registers nothing at all. Through her canny computations, Jilll eventually discerns that the material the room is made from is acting like a kind of recording medium, and that rather than manifesting as detectable phenomena, the medium attunes to brainwave patterns that produces the phenomena only inside their heads.
The notion that supernatural events might in fact have explanations rooted in subtle natural reproductions of sophisticated technology is an irresistible MacGuffin. Kneale had often toyed with the idea that ghost hauntings and magical apparitions might be manifestations of preternatural and pseudo-scientific phenomena, and enjoyed the notion that rather than always making the world easier to comprehend and tame, such technology might reveal terrifying truths. Here, the room’s uncanny properties have retained, locked in an apparent loop like a CD on repeat, a record of Laura’s death—she fell from a staircase in the room that appears to ascend to nowhere. The Stone Tape is less explicit, however, than much of Kneale’s other work, for even as the researchers think they’ve gained a grasp on something that can both explain away centuries of superstition and revolutionize the future of technology, that grasp slowly slips away as its implications are explored. Peter and his team immediately realise they might have the holy grail of information technology encoded in the masonry of the room, and yet, as Jill senses, there’s still some unexplained malevolence at hand, as Alan, after freaking out by witnessing the phenomenon again, recalls his crazed friend Jackie mentioning “the others” that had appeared to him.
In its on-screen technology, stylisation, and preoccupations, The Stone Tape is very 1972, but that’s part of its charm, especially since the script’s sharp satire on corporate culture of the era still has some resonance. Kneale jumps keenly on the anxious desire of the researchers to win back some cred for British technology at a time when the Japanese grip on the electronics market was becoming unassailable. It’s especially interesting that Peter’s mission statement for the team is to create a recording medium that anticipates modern MP3 technology. Peter pushes his team like a combination cheerleader and motivational speaker, anxious to make a quick breakthrough. He wants to keep his new kingdom safe from invasion by the far less glamorous nuts-and-bolts work of Crawshaw (Reginald Marsh), a classic eccentric inventor type who’s working on a new type of washing machine—far from the kind of world-conquering inventions he has in mind.
Bryant’s performance as Peter is a great part of the film’s effectiveness. His grating, half-bellowed voice establishes his swinging-dick authority in spite of his rather unimpressive physical presence, confirming he’s someone who’s staked all of his sense of self and his clout in the world on success in business. He’s also married with children and stringing Jill along. As they journey deeper into the enigma of the haunted room, which records show seems to predate the rest of the house, and are at least Saxon-period, the intricate relationship between the way Peter and Jill react to it and to each other is teased apart. Peter sees a problem to be conquered and subjugated according to his credo, whereas Jill is disturbed by the resonances of the phenomenon. She sees, first and foremost, a record of a woman in dire straits and worries that this might not be merely a facsimile of the girl’s death but may indeed be her spirit locked in an eternal reexperiencing of her own death—a grim resonance that accords with Jill fear of inevitable emotional abandonment by Peter.
Jill, priestess of the new cult of computer science, is crucial to the success of his new enterprise, and yet Jill embarrassedly excuses herself from Peter’s office when he takes a call from his wife; it seems that their relationship is based as much in Peter’s salesman gab and natural gravitational pull as the head honcho as anything else. The mordant take on the sexual politics of their relationship sharpens to a cruel point as Jill’s inability to let the mystery go causes Peter to explode in a misogynist rave, and, in a devastating near-throwaway touch, Collie spies Peter’s new secretary hovering in undress in his bedroom. Hysteria cranks up as Peter, driven by his determination to gain control over the phenomenon, drives his team to the point of fraying as they bombard the space with high-frequency sound and light waves to try to trigger a manifestation. His fellows buckle in pain and exhaustion as Peter frantically pursues his object, only to leave the room suddenly void of any trace of Louisa and her repetitious demise—he has, as someone puts it, erased the tape.
Jill continues, conjecturing that only the most recent “recordings” have been erased and that the oldest layers to the building could contain images from perhaps 7,000 years ago. Whilst a defeated and embarrassed Peter deals with the final incursion and triumph of the ridiculous Crawshaw and angrily spurns Jill, she is finally cornered by gleaming apparitions, suggestive of something grotesque and undefined that drive her to death in the same fashion as Louisa, plunging down the steps in the ancient room.
I’ve always had a great fondness for the almost Elizabethan stagelike modesty of classic TV production, and The Stone Tape exemplifies why I prefer it to the ever-slicker modern style that bores me senseless: the emphasis is on strong acting and unshowy simplicity in its effects. Delivering a tremendous boost to its low-key kind of eerie are the layered, unsettling sound effects provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, whose pioneering techniques in sound effects lent Doctor Who a lot of its early distinction, and whose work contributed quietly to the future boom in electronic music. Sasdy didn’t have to do much to sell the tightly constructed story except keep the typically cheap Beeb sets from toppling over, but he maintains a firm grip on a story that burrows deeper and deeper, like its heroine, who can’t give up her theorising about the nature of the room.
Asher, best known to cinephiles from her fawnish, but winning teenage performance in Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (1964) and her object-of-desire role in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970)—but otherwise most famous for getting dumped by Paul McCartney—is a revelation here in one of her first (and few) truly adult roles. Her layered, convincing performance captures both Jill’s strength of character and frustration in subordinating it to the likes of Peter, and her fraying psyche’s reaction to the proximity of a mystery only she can truly approach, aware that to approach it means the most hideous of fates. With her urgent refusal to give up her efforts to understand the mystery, she becomes both increasingly obsessive, working through the night, hidden in shadow, her unreasonable fixation linked cleverly to her disintegrating, resented attachment to Peter, Jill finally suffers exactly the fate she most dreaded, and yet one that seems almost preordained.
After Peter paints her as unbalanced and suicidal at an inquest, Collie finally punches him and walks out. Left alone, Peter wanders into the ancient room, where he begins to hear Jill’s anguished cries for his help, before something lights up the room and draws a hideous soul-cracking scream from Peter…
…which would serve him just about right. Snappy, gripping, and confidently rendered, The Stone Tape is a gem of the medium. l
You know you’re getting old when public television stations start mixing pledge drives in with musical performances of the stars you used to listen to when you were a teen. So far, my local PBS stations, having moved on from the 40s, are now stuck in the 50s. But I know my time is near. For the last few years, WGN-TV, known throughout the United States for broadcasting the inexplicably popular Chicago Cubs playing in their “ivy-covered burial ground,” have been offering up a heaping plate of nostalgia for Chicagoans my age in the form of a tribute to the great children’s programming they ran in the 1960s.
Now, I know every city has its own local programs for kids—the hubby waxes fondly about J.P. Patches, Seattle’s answer to Bozo the Clown—and I know that many of these shows were great. But Chicago is a peculiarly chauvinistic town—we always think what we have is the best (including, by the way, our Bozo—Bob Bell). And I do absolutely feel that way about the programs I grew up with. They are a huge part of me, informing my love of silent films through a PBS show called The Toy that Grew Up and great family films through Family Classics, hosted by a fellow you’re going to meet below, Frasier Thomas. I’ve thought about revisiting these programs on Ferdy on Films for a long time and finally have a legitimate excuse to do so: five shows from the 1969-1971 run of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, a Chicago-based human/puppet show that went national, have been issued on DVD. Sadly, I was too young to remember the original run of the show (1947-1957) and too old to appreciate the two-season revival. But as a piece of both Chicagoana and Americana, I embrace KFO with almost as much vigor as I do the shows I did experience in my formative years. And without further ado, here is my personal hall of fame of Chicago children’s television:
Kukla, Fran and Ollie
As I said, I wasn’t able to watch this show when I was the age of its target audience, but it’s hard not to appreciate this smart and charming human/puppet collaboration. Burr Tillstrom provided the hands and voices for all of the puppets, and looking at the DVD episode I was sent, “Madame O’s Merry Musicale,” the strong vocal resemblance of Kukla, Ollie, Beulah Witch, and Madame Ooglepuss is obvious. This show from 1970 features the KFO operatic recital of Madame O, hastily arranged so that Madame will not leave the show in a huff. Fran—always slightly befuddled—and all of the characters feel terrible that they haven’t done more to show their appreciation for Madame O, and Beulah especially tries to help in any way she can by hanging a curtain. Her failure is mitigated when Madame embraces her in friendship and says that it doesn’t matter at all. When the guests start arriving to view her performance, she waves to “Marilyn” and “Joan.” Now how many children’s shows these days would acknowledge real opera stars the way this one did Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland? The cultural literacy, intelligence, and excellent values this show presented to children for a total of 12 years make it a gem well worth revisiting.
Garfield Goose and Friends
This enormously popular show in the KFO mold offered us Garfield Goose, King of the United States, and fatherly human Frasier Thomas as his prime minister. Gar and rest of the hand puppets, including Romberg Rabbit, bloodhound Beauregard Burnside III, McIntosh Mouse, and Mama Goose (hilarious in her lace nightcap and granny glasses) were all given life and personality by Ray Brown, but only through movement, not voice. For example, Brown had a killer way of signaling Gar had just been made a fool of by pointing the puppet’s face straight into the camera and twisting his hand so that it looked like Gar was grinding his teeth. Fraiser Thomas would bring out the little theatre screen and hang it on a hook at the front of Gar’s castle, and we kids would be treated to cartoon series like Clutch Cargo (and his pals Spinner and Paddlefoot) and dramas like Journey to the Beginning of Time (actually, a 1955 Czechoslovakian film that was serialized!). Our favorites were the Christmas classics Suzy Snowflake; Hardrock, Coco, and Joe; and UPA’s Frosty the Snowman. I was so attached to Frasier Thomas that I actually cried when he died in the 1980s.
Ray Rayner and His Friends
Ray Rayner was a gentler Soupy Sales who indulged a tiny bit of slapstick and a lot of sly humor. The show always started with the Looney Tunes theme song. Rayner always wore an orange jumpsuit plastered with notes that he would pull off and read to announce the various parts of the show. Offering as it did craft projects, Warner Bros. cartoons, even Rayner singing the popular ballad “More” and speaking in French in one episode, Ray Rayner and His Friends was a variety of morning show for kids that gave adults information they could use, too. This wasn’t my favorite, but Chelveston, the live duck who was Rayner’s constant friend, always kept me coming back.
Another puppet/human show, this one featured a giraffe named Geraldine and host Jim Stewart. It had opera-singing Helen Hippo, as well as other wild animals, like J. Pierpont Crocodile and Virgil the Vulture. The most memorable part of this show was its theme song, “Be Kind to Your Parents,” which came from the Broadway show Fannie. I still remember every word of that song, and named a sterling giraffe charm I picked up in Africa Geraldine. Jim Stewart would continue to delight me in my older age with a program that picked up a bit on Here’s Geraldine’s wild animal theme—a travel and nature show called Passage to Adventure.
One show that is a very dim memory for me, but a favorite of my brother’s is Blue Fairy. All I remember is the beginning. The Blue Fairy, a beautiful young woman in a long blue gown, would fly across the TV screen and say “I’m the Blue Fairy. I’ll grant you a wish to make all your dreams come true.” This show won a Peabody Award for excellence in children’s programming. Imagine my surprise to find out that its star was none other than Brigid Bazlen, who played a very convincing temptress in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings.
I don’t know if all Chicago children watched Magic Door, but all the Jewish kids did. The theme song sung by the elfin Tiny Tov (“A room zoom zoom, a room zoom zoom, gilly gilly gilly gilly gilly ah sah sah”) beckoned us to come through the magic door in an acorn bigger than he was. “Just say these words and wonderous things you’ll see.” We spent the half hour with puppets Booby Beaver, Deedee, Scrunch, and other residents of Torahville learning about the Torah and Jewish holidays and traditions. It was pandemonium among us students at Temple Sholom when Tiny Tov came to meet us.
It came as an enormous shock to the cultural system when Farrah Fawcett, pin-up supreme of the 1970s, smashed her Barbie Doll image by playing the smashed-up wife of an abusive husband who eventually murders him by setting fire to their bedroom as he sleeps off another drunk. Blondes are supposed to have more fun, right? Fawcett didn’t see it that way, and her choice to take on this savage tale that would see her beauty hidden beneath bruises, blood, and K-Mart clothing was a bold statement about herself, her art, and perhaps even her view of domesticity. The Texas belle herself married and divorced one time only and endured a severe beating at the hands of Hollywood producer James Orr in 1998 after spurning his proposal of marriage. Francine Hughes, the character she plays in The Burning Bed, must have haunted her thoughts in the wake of her own battering.
Certainly, this made-for-TV film has haunted my memories from the moment I saw it and created a respect for Fawcett in me and many other people that lasted the rest of her too-short life. Viewing it again last night, I am in awe anew over Fawcett’s realistic, powerful portrayal of someone who started off not so different from herself—a pretty, flirty girl of the 50s—who saw her life close violently around her when she found herself in the crushing grip of her alcoholic husband and his enabling family, and trapped in poverty by her lack of education and opportunity.
The film opens at night. Three children are drowsing in a car. A woman runs out of the house in the background and gets behind the wheel. As she inserts the key in the ignition, a second-floor window in the house shatters as flames leap through it and hungrily grip the sill, walls, and roof. The children scream. The woman drives off. People from around the neighborhood, including the parents of the man of the burning house, run out and urge the fire crew to the rescue, but the house is quickly consumed.
The driver, Francine Hughes, is taken into custody for the premeditated murder of her husband Mickey (Paul Le Mat). When she meets her public defender (Richard Mazur), she is meek and silent. Only his angry shouts to her to defend herself and presentation of a letter from another battered woman who identified with her rouse Fran to tell her story to him. The rest of the film is told largely in flashback as Fran starts the story of her life from the time she first saw Mickey at a dance in 1963 to the night of the murder in 1977.
The film takes its time—it has an almost miniseries expansiveness filled with characters and incidents—so that we get a sense of the rhythms of this marriage, a look at Fran and Mickey while they are dating, as newlyweds, as parents, and watch the dynamics that cause the marriage to fracture into violence, apology, forgiveness, violence, apology, grudging forgiveness, and eventually just violence. At first, Mickey just wants to make it with Fran, but she’s saving herself for marriage. He wants her so badly, he proposes. She puts him off. She’s not sure she loves him enough to marry him and doesn’t want to drop out of school to satisfy his insistent proposals. Eventually, however, she comes to believe no one will ever love her as much as Mickey does, and they tie the knot. They move in with Mickey’s parents Flossie (Grace Zabriskie) and Berlin (James T. Callahan), where Mickey’s semi-chronic unemployment and the birth of their first child keep them for several years. Early on, Mickey strikes Francine for wearing a midriff-baring summer outfit; he says he’s jealous of how attractive she is, convincing her that she should take the slap as a compliment. She lets it slide.
They get their own house, “nothing much, but it was ours,” Fran remembers. They have a party for some friends, but when Fran contradicts Mickey, he strikes her in front of their guests. She runs into the house, where he follows her in a rage. Later, he apologizes and blames it on being drunk. Their family continues to grow, as does Mickey’s drinking problem and the frequency of Fran’s beatings. It’s always worse when he’s out of work. When Fran applies for welfare, she is told she can’t qualify unless she leaves her husband. Fran, the sunglasses covering her black eye knocked off by her toddler, says her husband threatened to kill her if she ever left him. “The state will protect you,” Mr. Barlow (Fred D. Scott), the case worker, assures her and hands her a form to fill out. “That’s it? I just fill out a form, and I’m divorced?” “Yes,” he answers and mentions a $7 fee. “Seven dollars!” she says, “Do you think I’d be here if I had $7?” Barlow pulls some cash out of his wallet for her.
As with most divorced parents, the existence of their three kids, to whom Mickey is devoted, means Fran will never really be free of Mickey. Still, she tries. When she rejects his appeals to come back, he drives off angrily and crashes his car. Seeing him helpless, in critical condition, Fran agrees to help nurse him back to health and moves into the house next door to her in-laws’ where Mickey is recuperating. Eventually, they move back together. A couple of good years, during which Fran tastes freedom with a government grant to go to business school, lead to even worse times and the climactic end of their marriage.
The script is tight and judiciously edited to bring out moments that ring true and lead us through the stages of this tragedy in the making in an economical, yet complete way. Fawcett is absolutely amazing in suggesting the advancing age and deteriorating attitudes of Fran. She is coquettish in her first meeting with Mickey, the very picture of the new bride relying on her mother-in-law for tips on married life, only later realizing that Flossie, a strong supporter of family and patriarchy, will never really back her up. Her own mother (Dixie K. Wade) urges her to return to Mickey when she leaves him the first time—it’s her duty to take the hard with the soft. Despite her strong and sensible instincts, Fran does what women have done for centuries—she toes society’s line. Fawcett shows the inner struggle Fran has trying to conform; it is from this never-expunged struggle that she finally decides to free herself with a definitive break from the rules.
Although it isn’t expressly stated, it is clear that the women’s movement showed Fran options she might not have reached for in another era. Her best friend Gaby (Penelope Milford) is sketched as another divorced mother who has gotten her act together on her own, and Gaby urges Fran to leave Mickey with a no-nonsense attitude that feels distinctly modern.
This film does not make social services out to be the bureaucratic enemy it is in many films. Given director Greenwald’s track record making political documentaries and films, this balance might not be expected, but it is a definite strength. One rather unfortunate distortion is that the film appears to have been set in the South. Several of the characters have Southern-ish accents, and it was mentioned several times that Fran’s mother lived in Jackson, which I assumed was Jackson, Mississippi. The real story on which this film is based took place in Michigan, and that’s where this Jackson was located. I think it is rather dishonest to portray this kind of relationship with a stereotypical Southern white trash veneer; this is a universal story and should either have been located nowhere or clearly in Michigan.
The most intense part of the film occurs in the short trial sequence at the end of the film. In a very real way, Fran’s legal defense—not guilty by reason of temporary insanity—does seem to be the right one, an extreme emotional response to a brutal beating, choking, and rape. It is this final beating, which Fran relates on the witness stand, that we view in its horrifying entirety. The way Fawcett cries restrainedly when she talks about being raped, and then her physical scrambling, cowering, desperate clutching at Mickey’s hands as he strangles her, well, it’s incredibly, harrowingly real. Both she and Le Mat display enormous courage in this scene. Le Mat, with a less nuanced character, does a creditable, but unspectacular job. But Fawcett is a complete miracle in this film, laying to rest once and for all any doubt that the golden girl from the frivolous “Angels” was a real actress to be reckoned with.
Director: Jerry Paris
Writers: Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When I started writing this post two days ago, Henry Gibson was alive. Now he’s not. What started as an appreciation of a wildly silly movie is now tinged with sadness. But I know Gibson wouldn’t want us to dwell on what’s now missing, but rather on what he left behind for us to enjoy until we join him. So onward, corny comedy fans!
Evil Roy Slade is fall-down funny from start to finish. I know this empirically because I fell off the couch laughing and had trouble maintaining my balance all along the way. Ask the hubby. He was there. Ask Fluffy. She was so startled by my uncharacteristic guffaws that she hid in her house and chewed nervously on Mousey for half the movie.
Is it just me and the time into which I was born that makes me love this TV movie so much? Its creative team of Paris, Belson, and Marshall, TV veterans all, had the charmingly witty “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in common before they teamed to do this western outlaw spoof. Would younger viewers find a speech like “I ain’t giving up. I’ve worked hard. It took me years to work my way to the bottom,” funny? How about all the physical comedy? I’ve always been a sucker for a great pratfall. Well, I’m betting that there’s a lot of life in this old film yet, if the continued popularity of Blazing Saddles is any indication. In fact, I do declare that Evil Roy Slade is better than Blazing Saddles, even if (or because) it’s only black character is named Smith.
HAVOC is emblazoned over scenes of bank robberies and explosions as Evil Roy Slade (John Astin at his finest), rejected as an infant by Indians and wolves alike and forced to change his own diapers while raising himself in the desert, warms himself in the exquisite joy of his own evilness. His most frequent target to thieve is Western Express; Nelson “I AM Western Express” Stool (Mickey Rooney) is fed up with the cowardice (“What do you call a nephew who rode side-saddle till he was 24?”) of his nephew Clifford Stool (Henry Gibson) in failing to bring Slade to justice. But his efforts to recruit the greatest lawman in the West, Marshall Bing “Is there someone at the door?” Bell (Dick Shawn), have been fruitless.
At that moment, Slade and his gang are robbing another bank. As is Slade’s custom, he kisses the first available woman. Dissatisfied with the dusty taste of the woman’s ruby red lips—forgetting that he kissed her through his mask—he sees the lovely Betsy Potter (Pamela Austin) glancing demurely in his direction. He lowers his mask, plants a good one on her, and drags a pen attached to a desk to her so she can write her address on a stolen $5 bill.
At Betsy’s urging, Slade tries to go straight, but in the end, finds he is not done with “Sneakin’ – Lyin’ – Arrogance – Dirty – Evil.” Marshall Bell is finally induced with a picture of Betsy in her skivvies to come out of retirement, his jeweled guitar ready to gun Slade down in “E Sharp or B Flat.”
Paris and company keep the jokes, both verbal and visual, coming fast and furious. Evil Roy Slade sends up everything from singing cowboys to psychoanalysis with good-natured humor that never gets raunchy. Astin’s twinkling eyes and maniacal grin have never been in better form. Gibson does his innocent poet voice from “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which can make any fan of that show burst out laughing in recognition. Rooney doesn’t really seem to know how to get laughs with his trusted bulldog Custer, resorting to wiping his mouth with a silk handkerchief; he really didn’t need anything more than his manic energy. Pamela Austin as the wide-eyed blonde worth cleaning up for is sweet, if generic; there’s one like her in every generation of films. Shawn never needs to do much of anything to be funny; a comedian more in control of his body we’ll never find. Pat Morita, as Bell’s Indian servant Turhan, affects an almost Scottish accent that I found wickedly ridiculous.
Rounding out the all-star cast are Milton Berle as Betsy’s uncle, who never expected Roy to use a shoe horn to intimidate customers at Berle’s shoe store; Edie Adams as Floozy, I mean Flossie, Roy’s girl until Betsy usurps her (“Who wants Flossie?”); and Dom DeLuise as psychiatrist Logan Delp, who tries to cure Roy of his anger by making him cry with reminders of Roy’s lonely youth and the cactus in his diaper. The scene where Delp gets Roy to drop all his weapons and walk forward (“Walk to me! Ohhh, Roy walk to me, you sniveling little coward! Walk!”) is like Clara’s walking scene from Heidi gone horribly wrong. Look for cameos of Ed Begley, Jr. and John Ritter at the start of their careers, and Garry Marshall’s sister Penny as a bank teller.
Here’s the opening of the film to give you a taste of an era of comedy that may be past but will never really go out of style. Stay to the end of the video for the immortal campfire song, “Stubby Index Finger,” and the very recent graduate to angel, Henry Gibson, who hums along. I imagine that he’s already asked for a Jew’s harp instead of the regular kind to while away eternity. Happy trails, Henry.
My father, born in 1926, grew up during the Great Depression. He was drafted into the Navy during World War II and served on a repair ship in the Pacific theater. He believed, as most people of his generation did, that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved his life by helping him avoid being part of a planned, but never executed, invasion of Japan. When he got home and married my mother, he started a career in sales—first in insurance, then on his own selling photocopy machines, and when his business failed, selling uniforms. He died at the age of 66, never having had a chance to retire.
It turns out that my father actually was a war casualty, though it took 40 years for the asbestos (even then, a well-known carcinogen) he was exposed to on the repair ship to kill him. When Dad became a manager at his insurance company, he was charged with firing workers, a job that broke his heart, especially when the worker had a family to support. As an independent supplier of copy machines, he could not compete with big companies like Xerox, though truth to tell, my father was no businessman. When he tried to sell uniforms to the City of Chicago, he was bewildered that none of his bids ever won. Schmuck, a ward heeler would have said. Who the hell is Art Ferdinand? Who sent him? Even I knew that.
The fact of the matter is that my father was the kind of man about whom Arthur Miller wrote his great tragedies. From falling victim to the indifference of the Navy to the asbestos danger on his ship, which echoes the tragically avoidable deaths of Miller’s All My Sons, to being a man like Willy Loman, better suited to working with his hands than trying to get ahead in business, even as the mildest version of a corporate cutthroat, my father’s American Dream was a fitful one.
And once again, today’s economic adversity highlights just what a timeless masterpiece Arthur Miller created in Death of a Salesman. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote in an essay about this powerful work, “America has become an ever more frantic, self-mesmerized world of salesmanship, image without substance, empty advertising rhetoric, and that peculiar product of our consumer culture ‘public relations’—a synonym for hypocrisy, deceit, fraud.” Like the Lomans, millions of families sold on the benefits of the new Gilded Age bought the refrigerator with the biggest ads, only to find themselves suckered. Maybe our depression will be spun as the Greater Depression.
In 1984, during the opening assault of “market wisdom,” a revival of Death of a Salesman was mounted on Broadway with Dustin Hoffman as the title character. It toured the hinterlands, including Chicago, and I spent more on a ticket than I had ever spent in my life ($35) to see Hoffman, John Malkovich, Kate Reid, and Stephen Lang bring the first family of American tragedy to life on stage. The following year, the play was turned into a television movie. The cast remained largely intact, with Charles Durning replacing David Huddleston as Willy’s friend Charley and veteran film director Volker Schlöndorff replacing theatre director Michael Rudman.
The familiar story can be told quickly. Willy Loman, a 60-year-old mediocrity of a traveling salesman, lives in a large house in a neighborhood that has been encroached upon by high-rise apartment buildings with his long-suffering wife Linda (Reid) and younger son “Happy” (Lang), who works at a dead-end job. Their older son, Biff (Malkovich), a war veteran, has come home after knocking around the country. Despite Willy’s belief that Biff has greatness in him, both sons are directionless and somewhat disreputable—Biff is an immature thief and Happy is a lazy, resentful womanizer. Nonetheless, Willy refuses to give up on Biff, and eventually kills himself in the hope that Biff will use the life insurance payout to make good. But Biff rejects Willy’s ideals and decides to find his own dream; Happy announces his intention to continue Willy’s fight to be top man; and poor Linda, the one character who sees each man for what he is, is alone in the house that she has just finished paying for, realizing that for all their striving, she has nothing left but an empty shell in which to end her days.
Death of a Salesman is the kind of drama that has cinematic possibilities, but its essence is poetic and symbolic. Rather than open the play up, Schlöndorff wisely uses his camera sparingly to emphasize the expressionistic roots of the theatre piece that, while framing its story as a family drama, focuses largely on the hallucinatory end of a self-deluded victim of the myth of America. Without the expectations that a more realistic rendering would set up, we are able to take in the fatalism Miller has written into each role, from Willy turning back suddenly from a sales trip because “I’m tired to the death” to Biff complaining to Hap that “I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and every time I come back here I realize that all I’ve done is waste my life.”
Like all families, each member has their assigned role, and throughout the film, each tries valiantly to play it. Linda tries to maintain an upbeat demeanor, telling Willy he’s “the handsomest man in the world” when he says he looks foolish and trying to come up with a reason for Willy’s restlessness and exhaustion other than what they both know is true—Willy is played out. Happy, the waterboy for his brother, announces periodically that he’s lost weight and that he’s going to get married as he tries to reassure his parents that he’s making good, too, though they hardly seem to care.
Willy is a weak and foolish man. He decided on his line of work because of an 84-year-old hawker who died “the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers in the smoker of the New York, New Haven and Hartford, going into Boston. When he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral.” Being “well-liked,” Willy perceived, was his key to success—one Willy never could fit in the lock. At the end of his life, Willy laments to the remembered image of his brother Ben (Louis Zorich), who became rich in the gold fields of Alaska, “How did you do it?” Maybe Ben didn’t play so fair, maybe he did things that would ensure he would not be well-liked, but Willy will never know. Ben doesn’t speak to Willy—the echo of his platitudes, “Doesn’t take much time if you know what you’re doing,” haunt Willy.
Biff, the popular quarterback of his high school football team, seemed poised to prove Willy’s theory of success right. But Biff, perhaps because he catches his father cheating on his mother but more likely because his father’s teachings are wrongheaded and oppressive, fails. The “anemic” Bernard (David S. Chandler), son of Willy’s only friend Charley, becomes a lawyer and modestly refuses to mention that he’s arguing a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court until Charley blurts the news. “I’m overjoyed to see how you made the grade,” says Willy and then pleads about Biff, “Why didn’t he ever catch on?”
Miller’s searching dialogue and painful family dynamics allow the cast great room to breathe life into his characters. Hoffman, criticized for being too small for the part because of the stamp the towering Lee J. Cobb put on it in its Broadway debut (and Miller’s original dialogue, which alludes to Willy being a fat man), is actually too young. He exaggerates Willy’s physical infirmities, something that worked better on stage than it does in front of a camera. Nonetheless, he manages to find bridges to the other characters, creating the fractious love needed between Willy and Biff and a pitiful loneliness that comes out best in his brilliant duets with Durning, who plays Charley with sympathy, clarity, and exasperated understanding.
Reid is age-appropriate and elevates the beaten-down Linda by her insistence on being heard. She achieves just the right hysterical strain in her voice, and her wide-eyed anxiety about Willy’s behavior signals the long-time stress she has been under. Her love for Willy exceeds that of her mother love, as she spits venom at the huge disappoint her sons have been to their father and basically throws Biff out of the house.
Malkovich is an alpha male of an actor, and he infuses Biff with the faded glow of the star of the family. He’s not interested in a “meager manner of existence,” but his love and fear of Willy prevent him from trying to outdo his insecure father. Malkovich restrains but does not bury the strength Biff has, so that when he rejects Willy’s dream, we’ve been properly prepared. His scene with Kathryn Rossetter, the Boston secretary with whom Willy has been having an affair, is the very picture of an inner cataclysm, as Biff crumbles in confusion and pain as Willy falls hard from the pedestal on which Biff placed him.
Stephen Lang may be the unsung actor of this ensemble. Happy is the second banana, and Lang generously and appropriately maintains his supporting profile. While playing the easy-going buddy to Biff when they are with Willy and Linda, he is gleeful about his disreputable behavior—sleeping with engaged women and then going to their weddings; lying to a good-time girl (Linda Kozlowski) about selling champagne, listening to her lies in return, and forgetting that Willy is meeting him and Biff for dinner in town. Happy sounds noble when he affirms Willy’s dream to make it to the top, but like all of his lies, he’ll probably forget about it in a week or two.
Kudos to Jon Polito, who plays Howard, Willy’s boss. He isn’t horrible, nor is he sympathetic. He is merely a businessman who is so out of touch with Willy’s financial plight—though he pays Willy’s salary—that he suggests Willy buy a wire recorder, “the most fascinating relaxation I’ve found…You can’t do without it.” Business is business, and he can “eat the orange and throw the peel away.”
This image of an emptied shell is repeated again and again in Death of a Salesman, and is realized to its greatest effect—as only film can—in an overhead shot looking directly down into the Loman home. Schlöndorff surrounds this roofless, peeling dwelling with flats of the neighboring buildings. The image is very startling and emphasizes the vulnerability of this family. He contrasts it with memory scenes of the Lomans going off to watch Biff in the big game—trees, open fields, emphasizing youth and the wide-open possibilities that still exist for Willy and Biff. Schlöndorff sticks with a moody, staged production, with spotlights illuminating Ben and then fading when Willy returns to reality. Schlöndorff lets his camera go one time—when Willy is raving incoherently in a bathroom—spinning with Hoffman as he tumbles to the ground. He uses slow motion in a POV shot of Biff watching Rossetter twirl in her underwear and flop voluptuously on Willy’s bed, again suggesting an image in Biff’s mind rather than what probably happened. And, of course, he has the advantage of being able to shoot close-ups to capture the emotions that race through his actors’ eyes.
The 1984 revival of Death of a Salesman was a theatrical triumph, and a prescient one at that. This independent television production, very well realized by Schlöndorff, preserves and reinterprets this landmark staging for future generations. It’s well worth your time.
For anyone who has been wondering where I’ve been all week, the explanation is that the hubby and I have all but eschewed movies in favor of a nightly rendezvous with BBC America to watch a five-part miniseries of one of our favorite TV series: Torchwood. Two years ago, the series disappeared. How could the BBC cancel such a winning show? We despaired of it ever returning. Thankfully, creator Russell Davies and the remaining regular cast members, John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Gareth David-Lloyd, and Kai Owen, were given a chance to come back and end the series properly (despite hints that it could return, I don’t expect it to this time).
Torchwood is a spin-off from Doctor Who, television’s longest-running science fiction series. The Doctor, played by various actors since the series premiered in 1963, is a time lord who recognizes the central character in Torchwood, Captain Jack Harkness (Barrowman), as something that shouldn’t exist—a fixed point in time and space. Harkness started life in the 51th century, but because he is a constant, he cannot die. The Doctor has facilitated his travels through time. A couple of centuries before the present, Harkness became involved with Torchwood, a secret branch of the British government based in Cardiff, Wales, where a rift in space/time allows aliens from other times and worlds to enter Earth’s space. Harkness now leads the Torchwood team. In the second season, two series regulars, physician Owen Harper (Burn Gorman) and math genius Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), were killed. Children of Earth finds the remaining Torchwood team of Harkness, former cop Gwen Cooper (Myles), and Ianto Jones (David-Lloyd), grieving their loss and continuing the business of capturing straying aliens and returning them to wherever they rightfully belong.
The series starts benignly enough, with Ianto and Jack pretending to be neighbors of a recently deceased man without family. A sympathetic doctor at the hospital, Rupesh Patanjali (Rik Makarem), allows them to spend a few moments alone with the body, whereupon they make a laser incision in the body and extract an alien symbiote with some forceps. Patanjali walks in on them as they scurry away. He knows they’re Torchwood, an open secret in Cardiff, and alerts them to some strange goings-on in the hospital. Soon, he is contacted by Gwen as a possible recruit to replace Owen.
At about this time, all of the children on Earth stop dead in their tracks, frozen in position. Then they start on again as though nothing has happened. Later, they all speak in unison, in English, repeating the phrase, “We are coming,” then resume life again. There’s no doubt to viewers of the show and the Torchwood team that aliens are using the children to communicate. A very select group of people in the British government know exactly who these aliens are because in 1965, 12 children were turned over to them in exchange for a life-saving antidote to a virus that would have killed perhaps 30 million people worldwide. Prime Minister Brian Green (Nicholas Farrell) decides that Britain’s previous dealings with the aliens, called the 456 for the wavelength on which they communicated, be covered up. He orders lowly bureaucrat John Frobisher (Peter Capaldi) to see to the elimination of anyone with knowledge of the 456—including Jack Harkness—and construct a device the 456 will occupy when they return to Earth.
To say much more about the plot would ruin the suspense the miniseries builds with admirable dexterity. The series breaks no ground in suggesting that the 456 are a nasty piece of work, characterizing them as arachnoid giants who breathe toxic air, explode suddenly with fountains of acidic sputum, and think nothing of turning the world’s children into temporary zombie-puppets for their own purposes. They are also politically shrewd, accepting private terms put forward from the PM by Frobisher to keep the 1965 visit secret from the world that will be party to this new negotiation. Their mission to Earth, moreover, is shown to be absolutely craven, having nothing to do with the usual scifi staples of preserving their dying species or colonizing Earth because their planet is dying. They are very forthcoming about their frivilous purpose, and that only fills us with more disgust.
What matters in Torchwood is not the monster of the day, but the very human relationships that the cast bring to life in minute and touching detail. Gwen and trucker Rhys (Owen) are married; Rhys is kept in the dark about what Gwen does until she can no longer take the secrecy Jack demands of her. Rhys becomes an unofficial member of Torchwood, helping out when needed, keeping Gwen grounded in the real world, adding both comic and romantically touching moments throughout the series, and running afoul of harm more than once. In Children of Earth, Gwen learns she’s pregnant, with Jack and Ianto learning about it before Rhys. Jack predicts, correctly, that Rhys will hit the ceiling when he finds out he’s third in line of discovery. Yet, the moment Gwen tells him is classic Torchwood—hiding in the back of a truck hauling potatoes, she talks ruefully about rehearsing moments for big announcements long before they happen, and how the best laid plans go awry. One look at her broadening, impish smile tells Rhys all he needs to know. Owen and Myles are terrifically likeable actors, and their chemistry makes the relationship the diamond at the core of the Torchwood story.
Ianto and Jack are lovers. Jack, who has lived for centuries, doesn’t think twice about behaving as part of a gay couple, but Ianto, who never had a male lover before Jack, is still feeling around the edges of their love. When he reveals all to his sister Rhiannon (Katy Wix), she squeals incredulously, a loving and teasing sibling wondering how she could have missed that her brother was gay. Ianto says he wasn’t interested in other men, “Just him.”
A trio of tragic figures emerges: Clem McDonald (Paul Copely), the only child from 1965 to have escaped abduction; Frobisher, a dedicated civil servant being set up to take the fall because he’s entirely expendable; and Jack himself. Clem, a scruffy, pathetic man confined to an insane asylum for years, is still linked to the 456. His instinct for survival is as keen as it was in 1965, as he senses the aliens’ approach all along the way and runs from them. Kind-hearted Gwen takes him in and tries to comfort him that he is safe with Torchwood, a claim she forces herself to believe after the Cardiff headquarters have been blown to bits by a bomb planted inside Jack. Copely infuses this potentially annoying character with a pathos and native intelligence that make us feel the deep tragedy of this boy who never really grew up because he was made a pawn in a devil’s bargain.
Frobisher, likewise, is tasked with negotiating with the 456 and meeting their demands after a show of force convinces the various governments of the world that they are no match for the aliens. In another black bargain, the men in charge pussyfoot around making decisions. Three women close to the hub of power—cabinet minister Alice Carter (Lucy Cohu), assistant to Frobisher Bridget Spears (Susan Brown), and brand-new office hire Lois Habiba (Cush Jumbo)—make the difficult choices, show courage and loyalty, and dare to challenge the status quo. Indeed, in Torchwood, a perhaps idealized view of the superiority of women’s judgment is at the forefront. Men can be brave, loyal, and true, but they are frequently shown to be foolish, narrow-focused, naive, and cynical.
The most morally ambiguous character, and the most classically tragic character of the lot, is Jack. What hasn’t a man who will never die seen? What bargains hasn’t he made that he has learned to regret—or regretted the moment he made them? What must it be like for a man to see those he loves grow old and die—or die in the prime of life? Torchwood is certainly well named for the bright lights that blaze and burn out young. Only Jack has nothing to fear mortally, but his conscience in some sense may be seen as the conscience of the divine: seeing the world and despairing at creation and the misery that has attended it. Gwen herself voices this moral dilemma, wondering why The Doctor shows up sometimes to save the day and is absent at other times. “The Doctor must look at this planet and turn away in shame.” Gwen stands for facing each day, no matter what; Jack has learned that running away is not only acceptable, but also the only choice in some circumstances. Bravery means nothing to him; learning to live with what he’s seen and knows is his life’s great task.
Torchwood: Children of Earth deals dramatically with how those in power exempt themselves from sacrifice, force sacrifice on those they consider expendable, and dissemble even to their allies. It takes up the question of bargaining with terrorists, and whether such bargains can ever be trusted to hold. It looks at the appetites we all have—for pleasure, power, security—and places them against the cost to others. It shows what is best and worst in humanity, and how people choose their loyalties. In Torchwood, loyalty to the personal almost always outweighs loyalty to country, even though Torchwood exists to serve the British state.
The script for this miniseries takes in these big questions almost effortlessly, and the cast infuse their parts with nuance and charisma. There are a few “conveniences,” particularly in wrapping the story up. For example, how does Lois go from her first day of work to sitting in on the negotiations with the 456? In reality, it wouldn’t happen, but given the crisis that has thrown apart normal operations, we can see how someone no one knows could slip into high-level meetings as almost a piece of furniture. We accept certain plot devices, because like all good scifi, the series largely maintains its own internal logic. And when we’ve spent five or so hours gripped in a ripping yarn that engages our minds, we can only wish that it would go on forever.
Among monsters, there is none that has had more longevity and allure than the vampire. From its first English-language iteration, John Polidori’s short story “Vampyre,” through to the wildly popular Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, the vampire indeed seems likely to live forever. Certainly, vampires already rule the world of cinematic monsters, with directors both great and small finding their stories worthy of telling and retelling. The template for most vampire films is Irishman Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Few of the adaptations have been terribly faithful to the novel, the result of which, it seems to me, is that the battle between good and evil has deteriorated into a mosh pit of mumbo jumbo, or disappeared entirely. Not surprising in our increasingly secular age, but there is much to be said for the power behind the religious notion of the sacred and the priceless worth of the human soul. That power is palpable in the most faithful adaptation of Stoker’s classic I’ve ever seen, Count Dracula.
The story is very familiar, so I’ll sum it up quickly. Solicitor Jonathan Harker (Bosco Hogan) leaves London and his fiancee Mina Westenra (Judi Bowker) for Transylvania to finalize a home purchase for Count Dracula (Louis Jourdan), who plans to relocate to England. He is detained, a virtual prisoner, in the Count’s home for a month; learns the Count is a vampire; threatened by three brides of Dracula (Susie Hickford, Sue Vanna, and Belinda Meuldijk); and left there when Dracula sets sail. Instead of going straight to London, Dracula lands in Whitby, in Yorkshire, where Mina, her mother (Ann Queensberry), and her sister Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) are on holiday. The Count attacks Lucy. Mina learns Jonathan is alive, and goes to Transylvania to retrieve him; they marry while abroad. In London, the Count moves into his digs. Lucy grows increasingly weak, and Dr. Van Helsing (Frank Finley) is brought in on her case. He diagnoses vampirism but cannot save Lucy. Soon, the Count is attacking Mina, offering her to his disciple Renfield (Jack Shepherd), who is in an insane asylum under the care of Dr. John Seward (Mark Burns). Renfield refuses the gift, and kills himself instead. It is then up to the Count to take possession of her soul, and Van Helsing, Harker, Seward, and Lucy’s fiance Quincy Holmwood (Richard Barnes) to destroy him and save Mina.
Produced as a miniseries for the BBC, Count Dracula takes few liberties with Stoker’s novel and is able, with its longer running time, to allow events to unfold gradually, building suspense and presenting the familiar characters of Van Helsing, Renfield, and even the Count with stronger points of view. In most vampire tales, the Christian notion of the soul is dispensed with entirely, making the Christian prayers and symbols used as weapons against the vampire—the crucifix and consecrated hosts (no holy water in this version)—mere props. In this version, Christianity is served up repeatedly as a constant reminder that this is a fight between God and the devil.
For example, Harker rides a coach to the crossroads where Dracula’s carriage will fetch him up to the castle and informs his fellow passengers where he is going. A Romanian woman places a rosary around his neck (“for the sake of your mother”), and once things start getting strange in the castle, Harker doesn’t hesitate to wear it. Finley as Van Helsing is no fire-breathing avenger, but a kind, deeply religious man who examines Lucy and tries to prevent Dracula’s access to her without frightening her. When it is time to set her soul free from the vampire’s curse, he engages Quincy to drive the enormous stake into her because Quincy’s is a hand of love. Over and over, we see the gentle love of beings with souls—with the body of Christ represented by the host being the most powerful force for love—defeat the vampires.
Louis Jourdan is an amazingly good Dracula, the best, in my opinion. He has that cold handsomeness and veneer of culture that always seem the most evil. When Harker discovers his “secret” in a truly macabre scene showing the Count clinging to the castle wall like a bat and lurching his way down, Dracula doesn’t seem to care. He’s powerful, immortal, perhaps even invincible in his own mind. He actually doesn’t have much screen time, so the effect he exerts on us is rather like that he exerts on his victims—a dreadful attraction, even yearning for his presence, an unseen but unmistakeable menace in the dark.
I was deeply impressed with Jack Shepherd as Renfield. His character has never made much sense to me, and his fly eating, spider catching, and bizarre logic have always seemed to be just a horror device—the looney in the attic, so to speak. Here, as Renfield regains his humanity through contact with Mina before Dracula has attacked her and then after, learning of her fears of being damned to purgatory for losing her soul, his rationality returns. He stands up to Dracula without apparent fear, asks God to grant him the strength to do what he must, and breaks a wooden chair to use to stake himself through the heart. The passionate conviction Shepherd invests in this sequence has forever transformed my vision of Renfield.
The production values are a bit jarring to modern eyes. Mixing video with film gives Count Dracula an uneven, cheap feel, and special effects, such as the use of negative and double-exposed images are basic, if effective, in suggesting the eye of Dracula. Growing up on this kind of stuff, though, I noted it, but was not bothered by it. In other ways, Count Dracula pays greater attention to the details than modern horror films do. For example, when Dracula tells his brides that they cannot feast on Harker, they complain about what he has to offer them. A carpet bag on the floor twitches slightly, and the scene shifts to the brides holding a naked baby boy in the air, and then to their blood-stained mouths. A horrifying scene shot with more economy I’d be hard-pressed to find. Another effective moment is when the men enter the dark basement in Dracula’s London home to search for the boxes where he keeps the earth in which he must rest. Flashlights twitch across the contents of the cobwebbed room, alighting momentarily on various objects and leaving others indistinct shadows in a frightening place. In its untricked-up simplicity, this scene is more frightening than other “don’t look in the cellar” scenes that tend to be ridiculous with foreboding.
Count Dracula has been unavailable for some time. Although this BBC Warner DVD issued in 2007 has no extras at all, it’s still well worth its modest purchase price and then some. By retrieving the story from the scream-inducing impulses of the horror genre, Count Dracula reinvigorates the vampire fable with universal consequences that haunt the human spirit.
I don’t expect everyone knows about or watches the Misogyny Channel, aka Bravo, which through its programming of modeling and fashion competitions, matchmaking, and its “Real Housewives” series in Orange County, Atlanta, New York City, and New Jersey, pushes every button every girl and woman in America and most of the rest of the world has had jammed into her brain stem. And I am no exception.
I enjoy looking at fashion, so until it jumped networks, Project Runway was a winning Bravo entry for me. I think, though, it had more to do with Heidi Klum, a very engaging host, than with the show itself, which is incredibly dumb (let’s make outfits out of stuff at a recycling plant, a grocery store, and a car parts factory—yup, that’s a real test of talent). The rest of the shows have no appeal for me at all. Except The Real Housewives of New York City. For some reason, when I run across this show—and no, I don’t know when its regular time slot is; I gave up on having a constant TV schedule in my head long, long ago when the networks decided to redecorate their line-ups about every week—I have to watch it. None of the other “Real Housewives” shows have rung my chimes; I guess we all have our own psychic dynamics when dealing with female relationships, and as an urban career woman, I find this one works for me.
As with all the shows, the cast is composed of several wealthy women and the people in their lives. Jill has a rich, indulgent husband who runs a fabric business; Jill helps out at the retail store, buys a lot of expensive things, redecorates, and throws charity events. She has a fractious friendship with Ramona, who is married to a tennis pro and has her own skin care and jewelry line. They are friends with celebrity chef Bethenny, who has a food line and just published a book on achieving a thin figure. Luann, a former model, married a count, does charity stuff, and just published an “as told to” book on etiquette. Alex seems to come from a bonafide New York society family; she’s joined at the hip with her effete Aussie husband Simon and works in marketing. The newest “housewife” is Kelly, a former model and editor of Elle Accessories who is, according to Bethenny, the queen of “fabulosity:” the two women can’t stand each other. Everyone but Bethenny has children.
The more I watch this show, the more it sickens me. It’s not the wealth or even the insular bubble of New York society these women inhabit that has them running from party to party, charity event to charity event, and the Hamptons to St. Barts. It’s not even, exactly, about their appearance “touch ups,” their couture miniskirts and dresses (don’t they ever wear slacks?), or working their connections to get what they want (a private school for Johann and Francois, Alex and Simon’s kids; a tennis star Jill plans to fly from California to New York for a grudge match with Ramona and her husband Mario). The thing that underlies this series—and, I suppose, all the series—is that these women seem so immature, so adolescent, so caught up in girl culture:
Relationships are central to girls who depend on close, intimate friendships. The trust and support of these relationships provide girls with emotional and psychological safety nets. … Yet girls can be excruciatingly tough on other girls, particularly at early adolescence. They talk behind each other’s backs, they tease and torture one another; they police each other’s clothing and body size and fight over real or imagined relationships with boys. In so doing they participate in and help to reproduce largely negative views of female relationships as untrustworthy, deceitful, manipulative, and catty. Unlike boys, girls are not encouraged to act out their anger, so uncomfortable feelings often go underground and come out in unhealthy words.
From Lyn Mikel Brown’s Girlfighting by way of Still Failing at Fairness by David & Myra Sadker & Karen R. Zittleman
Watching the RHNYC cast is like sitting in a toilet stall in the girls’ restroom and hearing the reigning clique duke it out. Bethenny screams at Jill, veins bulging out of her neck, to apologize for talking about Bethenny behind her back. Ramona is struck dumb by the appearance of Simon, a man she loathes, as Jill’s tennis partner; Jill smirks at the zing she’s given Ramona. Luann is livid at the bad manners Ramona shows when she says that the count is an old man in front of Luann’s daughter! Everyone wonders whether Alex ever disciplines her sons, who, at 1 and 3 years old, climb all over the RHs at a dinner party. Kelly calls Bethenny all the way across town to meet her at a bar so she can tell her she doesn’t like her and will never be her friend. During this encounter, the infamous, “You’re here (one hand held low), and I’m here (other hand held high)” becomes the moment that characterizes Kelly’s condescending attitude. Her working the extreme hottie Max onto the show as her date is another apparent display of superiority.
More from Lyn Mikel Brown’s Girlfighting by way of Still Failing at Fairness:
Why do girls act this way? The need to belong and fear of rejection are high on the list. They want to be part of a sort of club, a club of innies. Some girls explain they like the excitement and drama of relational aggression, and evidently there is a wide audience for such behavior. Stories about “cruel and nasty girls” have become the centerpiece for magazines, television shows, and popular books. We are now taught how to tame girls, make them nicer, quieter, easier to deal with, sweeter and more pliable. A decade or two ago we feared girls’ loss of voice; now we seem to fear that they have found it. Is this a discussion about “mean girls,” or a discussion about society’s continuing pattern of defining and demeaning females?
Looking at these “successful” women makes me profoundly sad. Their adolescent competitiveness, their focus on appearance (Jill is so pleased that she almost fits in a size 0 dress), their status in a completely traditional female world of husbands, children, dating, and careers in cooking, beauty, and image seem like such a squandering of talent, energy, and considerable resources. When Luann gives Bethenny dating advice, she says, “I think men are tired of having to deal with outspoken women. You should try to be more demure and coaxing.” Oh my god! What is Bravo trying to do to us? What are these women trying to do to other women? If they aren’t really like this, why do they let themselves be manipulated?
And why do I watch them? Why do millions watch them and the other “housewives”? Because we are still part of a system that deranges us in our adolescence. Call this the unfinished business of womanhood, the chance we may be trying to give ourselves to heal the wounds inflicted on our sense of self. People may say they enjoy these shows, but the truth is, they’re not much fun after a while. They become grueling. Jill herself said she found her fight with Bethenny very painful to watch. These women aren’t self-centered, petty, or vain by nature. They’re birds in gilded cages, and whether they think it’s misplaced, insulting, or “doesn’t matter to my life,” I feel a terrible sympathy for them.
When I was four years old, a TV station advertised this miniseries using the unusual touch of excerpting nearly a whole scene, one in which the monstrous vampire Barlow (Reggie Nalder) erupts into a kitchen table conclave of a teenager, Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin), his parents (Joshua Bryant and Barbara Babcock), and their priest (James Gallery), promptly murdering both parents. For a kid, this was raw stuff, and I freaked out, causing my father to order me out of the room if there was ever a sign of it coming on again. It’s still a startling, unnerving scene; Hooper, who made beautifully nasty hash out of family rituals in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), pulled out all stops in showing evil literally erupt into a middle class home to consume the nuclear family and all their social safeguards.
Salem’s Lot is the black sheep of the first wave of Stephen King adaptations. Unlike De Palma’s Carrie (1976), Kubrick’s The Shining (1981), and even Carpenter’s Christine (1983), Salem’s Lot had the disadvantage of being a made-for-TV production with the familiar rough edges of such efforts at the time—hurried lighting and camera effects perforated by cheesy televisual touches, like freeze frames and blackout cliffhangers created to make room for the ad breaks. But Salem’s Lot was made by a director hip to King’s essential aesthetic of melding gothic canards with a sense of the passion and cruelty inherent in everyday life in dreary small towns and suburbs, and how they provide sounding boards for explosions of more expansive evil and concomitant good.
Vampire movies these days seem to have been exhausted by the souped-up idiocy of the Blade movies and Van Helsing, which stripped away any hint of loathsome dread (This was written before I first heard of the Twilight franchise, which concluded this debasement — Rod). Salem’s Lot, on the other hand, employs generic clichés wittily. There’s the old haunted house on the hill —the Marston House—shadowy enclave of the malevolent memory and totem of fascination for local, imaginative youth. Recently bought by smooth, saturnine émigré Mr. Straker (James Mason), who’s opening an antique store in ‘Salem’s Lot, pop. 2013,” in rural New England (of course), the Marston House was once the scene of suicides and paedophilic murders. The house lurks oppressively in the mind of recently returned novelist Ben Mears (David Soul), who moved out of the town at 10 years of age, and has now returned to write a story inspired by the legend of the Marston House. Ben’s sure that the Marston House has a quality of radiating evil that attracts evil people, which has him pondering both the nature of Straker and his unseen partner Barlow, as well as his own.
Ben makes friends (and enemies) quickly, coming into contact with his old teacher Jason Berk (Lew Ayres); Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia), a bookish, lovelorn, “semi-liberated” woman between life phases; her genial doctor father (Ed Flanders); and a younger version of himself, in the person of horror-movie obsessed Mark. Weird stuff starts to happen. Two dimwits are hired to pick up a crate imported by Straker, which radiates intense cold and seems to sneak up on them in the back of the truck. They’re supposed to place the crate in the Marston House basement and padlock the house. They do the former, but run away before doing the latter. Meanwhile, two brothers, Danny and Ralphie Glick (Brad Savage and Ronnie Scribner), friends of Mark’s, are assaulted whilst heading home in the woods. Straker returns to the Marston House with one of them bundled up and prepared as a snack, only to find that whatever was inside the crate has busted loose. This was, of course, the monstrous Barlow, a Germanic vampire who moves from small town to small town, consuming all and moving on; soon, vampirism is spreading at an exponential rate through the town, eating up the good and the bad, the bright, brave, and stupid.
King’s oeuvre has obvious roots in the works of writers like Shirley Jackson and H.P. Lovecraft, both masters of the subgenre of New England horror that grafts Old World obsessions onto New World shores, and in 1950s monster movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Blob (1958) in which the friendly night of American suburbia becomes evil-riddled and threatening. Most of the singular aspects of King’s imaginative appeal that made him the premier genre novelist of recent times are present. It’s easy to see the appeal he has for adolescents of all ages in contrasting oppressive everyday life, including acts of commonplace thuggery—here, in drunken ex-con truck driver Cully (George Dzundza) beating up his tarty wife (Julie Cobb) for cheating on him with her sleazy realtor boss (Fred Willard), or Susan’s ex-boyfriend Ned (Barney McFadden) assaulting Ben for stealing her—balanced by oddball outsiders whose strange awareness and retreats into private worlds of fantasy ironically arm them for the fight against evil; in not living in the “real” world, they’re the better prepared for its collapse. Mark is warned by his father he’ll never make a living out of his passion for horror trappings, but, of course, his geek smarts will fortify him in his battle against vampires, just as Ben’s imagination makes him keen to the threat of the Marston House when no one else is. As tiresome as King’s writing style gets—and why I prefer watching the movies made of his works— it’s this cable he has plugged into the yearnings of his readers that borders on genius.
Hooper aims more for atmosphere than slickness, employing touches that wink to fans of older horror movies: drawing out the parallel of Barlow’s arrival with that of Dracula at Whitby; the Psycho-esque look of the Marston House and its interior of pure gothic decay; fog-wreathed docks and shadowy graveyards; and most indelibly, modeling Barlow’s appearance after Max Schreck’s Nosferatu (apparently the idea of sacked screenwriter Larry Cohen, in the same year, oddly, that Werner Herzog did his own remake of Murnau’s sepulchral classic) rather than the novel’s more modern, suave Euro-trash monster. Barlow’s long-delayed first appearance, finally erupting into the prison cell of Ned, is a doozy. The 1970s, the busiest decade in the history of the horror film, had been largely absent of vampires, apart from the crappy tail-end of the Hammer cycle, the Count Yorga and Blacula films, and Jean Rollins’ bold, underground films, like Lèvres de Sang (1974). In reviving a moribund subgenre, Hooper employs fresh details for his vampires, like glowing eyes and wire-riding levitations, that would energise subsequent variations like Fright Night (1985) and Near Dark and The Lost Boys (both 1987). The eeriest scenes have Barlow’s adolescent victims drifting out of the fog outside windows, pleading to be let in and scratching incessantly on the glass, evoking the purest essence of childish, nocturnal anxiety. The early scenes have an offhand, almost sloppy feel, but this proves to be part of an skillful conditioning style; as the humdrum gives way to the urgent, so the camera movements become more elaborate, with impressive sweeping crane shots and clever framing in the final third as our heroes enter Marston House to root out evil, suggesting a new overlording presence and order.
The town’s full name is Jerusalem’s Lot, which was also the original title of the novel, shortened at the behest of the publishers who though it sounded too religious. This makes clever association with biblical tropes: the holy city of Jerusalem segues into Lot and his daughters, the lone survivors, of the cursed city of Sodom and where Lot’s wife famously looked back and was turned to a pillar of salt. Salem’s Lot, the quintessential small American town, quickly turns into a septic den that Ben and younger double Mark barely escape. Lot’s wife could be Susan, who is caught by Straker and vampirised by Barlow. Susan, drawn first to handsome stranger Ben, follows him into the house only to vanish, and Straker amusedly tells Mark that he took her to the man she really wanted to meet—an interesting hint of violently morbid sexuality that isn’t explored. But that’s always been King’s style. He provides ready analogues for real-world experiences (domestic violence in The Shining, groups for survivors of child abuse in It, sexual awakening and repression in Carrie) without risking alienating his audiences by exploring these metaphors in depth, cloaking them instead in deeper webs of mystification.
In a splendidly dark coda—a touch purely that of Hooper and screenwriter Paul Monash (who was having a good year in 1979 between this and his excellent adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front)—Vampire-Susan pursues Ben and Mark to Guatemala, where they wash up after they destroy Barlow, Straker, and burn down Marston House, concluding in the uniquely bleak scene in which Ben stakes Susan despite her protestations of love before he and Mark continue a life in exile. This last note has an intriguing political undertone: Ben is defined as a double-outsider, both with his arty bent and his “left-wing” status. King himself, who published the novel in 1975, said the novel was explicitly inspired by his own gnawing anxiety over Watergate. In running from the United States, pursued by agents of spreading evil, Ben and Mark become emblematic dropouts fleeing the oncoming right-wing backlash.
Amidst the impressive cast, Mason, with ineffable cool but also a subterranean strand of repressed panic in attempting to appease his dreadful master, stands out; so does Bedelia, playing Susan with a mix of the worldly and the uncertain. The ever-entertaining Kenneth McMillan plays the canny but flaky local constable. Most problematic is Soul, who flounders in playing a troubled intellectual hero. His way of suggesting depth is to wrinkle his brow constantly and talk in a croaky baritone. Salem’s Lot is far from perfect—the finale wobbles, with the dispatch of Barlow, so memorably introduced, disappointingly easy, and there are faults in the story progression. But it’s still a hugely entertaining reminder of how well a contemporaneous horror yarn can work. l