Wednesday, 10 January 2018

La Belle et la Bete (1946)

The recent live action Disney remake of their own animated film has reawakened interest in the old Beauty and the Beast scenario - but as that cartoon was inspired in large part by the French original, it's worth referring back to that, for it has few peers.

Certainly it is true that La Belle et la Bete reaches across to both sides of the age spectrum, as it is that rare animal, an adult fairy tale, magically directed by Jean Cocteau without sinking into heavy adult grimness, and retaining the innate beauty of the story and the setting itself

I was first introduced to Cocteau with a certain amount of caution. In the process of an experimental film we were making at Signals Media Centre Colchester with some technicians, local artists and actors, we touched on ideas of how to tell a film version of some of the classic Greek legends, such as Echo and Narcissus, as well as Orpheus in the Underworld. Such a film we watched as research: Cocteau's Orphee (above). Its quirky use of rustic and (then) modern French locations with black bikers for demonic servants and rippling water effects for mirrors was debatably entertaining, and Cocteau was feeling his way round a medium that he was only accustomed to from a distance, but was also finding new and interesting ways to express his poetry on film.

With La Belle et la Bete, made 4 years before however, he was able to find a perfect blend of mainstream story telling combined with his own poetic emotional and visual sense.

Still recognisable under an arduous make-up, is Cocteau's favourite leading man Jean Marais (who also played the title character in Orphee), who brings a classic French Gallic quality of tragic charm to the Beast. Interestingly, Marais also plays one of Belle's village admirers, which perhaps suggests  (with its finale too), that a lot of what has transpired in the story may be in Belle's mind.

What's so effective about the film is that its setting outside the castle remains down-to-earth, whilst the castle remains magical and otherworldly, but the two still blend together perfectly. This is not only down to Cocteau's skill, but also I feel, the accessibility of Josette Day to play in both of these worlds so easily.

A weakness of the Disney version(s) was the need to have a villain, whereas in this traditional and largely faithful telling of the tale, there is a greater villain (and hero, in its way): that of Nature itself. The harshness of winter (metaphorically as well as physically) within the cold prison of the Beast's palace - it is also because of his daughter's wish for a rose that Belle's father is ensnared by the Beast in the first place, and it is also that rarely used power in blockbusters today, Love, that is the ultimate cure for both Belle and the Beast's enslavement.

But then, the French were always better expressing Love than anyone else.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Postcards from the Edge (1990)

This page has suffered, in what the words of Carrie Fisher might say, from a little touch of writer's blog. So it's time to revive things, with a film sadly about two people no longer with us.

Carrie Fisher has always made me laugh - not in a conventional way - nor was she a conventional actress, although born into the standard mold for movie stars (raised in Beverly Hills), and in common with the likes of Melanie Griffith, Kiefer Sutherland, the Sheen brothers and Jamie Lee Curtis, was raised in a showbiz background of famous acting parents.

It is the parental relationship between actress Suzanne Vale and her even more famous actress mother, Doris Mann (the brilliant Shirley MacLaine, very much evoking Debbie Reynolds) that forms the central crux of Fisher's film adaptation of her semi-autobiographical book - a semi-surreal and bittersweet journey of a drug addict (as well as a second narrator, removed for the film version) who has very much turned to hard substances, to give her the lift that life often fails to give, but can also threaten to give her exactly the reverse.

Following on from the screen immortality that playing Princess Leia had given her, my own natural enthusiasm and genuine fondness for Carrie led me to follow a lot of her subsequent films - and a bit of raw batch they were (Under the Rainbow, The Man with One Red Shoe, Hannah and Her Sisters, Appointment with Death, When Harry Met Sally, and her one pre-Star Wars film, Shampoo, in a scene-stealing cameo upstaging Warren Beatty.) Having also read the book Postcards from the Edge, to hear in 1988 that the book was being adapted into a film, directed by the distinguished Mike Nichols, with an equally distinguished cast headed by Meryl Streep no less, together with the likes of Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Dennis Quaid, and the aforementioned Shirley MacLaine, such excitement at the prospect was palpable. Come the release date in Britain of January 1991, I followed the now familiar trend of watching the film on its opening weekend in Leicester Square.

Leicester Square, January 1990

The film was gloriously cinematic, on first viewing, and the stars sealed it. On reflection now, Carrie's witty one liners have a darkness and a cynicism tinged to them, after the novelty of seeing Meryl and Shirley doing their thing had worn off. Good though Meryl Streep is (as always), the one key element missing from the film is Carrie Fisher in person, although her spirit runs right throughout the entire movie.

As is well known now, Carrie Fisher suffered from manic depression, and herself had a drugs overdose in 1984. This is chronicled - through the fictional medium of film - with Suzanne lying in bed one morning with her latest "fling", a something Lothario (Dennis Quaid) who suddenly discovers the extent of Suzanne's wild night, and rushes her straight to the nearest hospital where a specialist (Richard Dreyfuss) brings Suzanne round and has to pump her stomach. "Do I have to be there?", Suzanne asks, in one of Carrie's typically mordant one-liners.

Cut to a few weeks later, and to cope with the rehab after the near-death experience, Suzanne is co-opted by her agent into the home of her mother Doris,  in a supervisory capacity. Having Doris for supervisor however, is for Suzanne potentially taking her from the fire into the frying pan, considering Doris's own history of alcoholism.

The potential conflict could be explosive but in the end is relatively humane and with the two celebrated ladies coming to something of an understanding and an appreciation of each other, like Debbie and Carrie themselves have come to do.

As if to emphasize the poetic irony of the story told in Postcards from the Edge, both Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died within days of each other, Debbie being unable to cope with outliving her daughter as she had always feared. Their stars still twinkle brightly.

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Untouchables (1987)

Brian De Palma (above - front left) has made many excessive films, sometimes manipulative, sometimes misogynistic -and sometimes both. He has also frequently homaged (ripped off would be the unkinder term) the distinctive genre styles of other directors, most notably Hitchcock. Perhaps this is one reason why De Palma such a favourite of Quentin Tarantino's - also a pastiche merchant.

He is at his forte however, in The Untouchables, which has for De Palma the rare distinction of being blessed with an excellent script, by David Mamet - who can also be a little rough at the edges, and has since moved on to bigger things himself. Mamet's hard-hitting and no-nonsense adaptation of the popular 1960s TV series starring Robert Stack, here pits Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) at the forefront of a good-versus-evil yarn where the evil is tremendously active in the form of Robert De Niro, no less, as Al Capone - effectively the Emperor of Chicago, or its unofficial mayor (in history as well as in the film.) Ness's allies - condensing the work of several of Herbert Hoover's appointed FBI agents to deal with the problem of prohibition in 20s Chicago - include of an Italian American police trainee (Andy Garcia, emerging as a new star in the making) on the right side of the law, and a meek accountant (Charles Martin Smith), who ultimately has the final solution that will bring down Capone. Beautifully simplified on both sides, but also deliciously put together, particularly with stars as representative as De Niro and Costner.

Chief ally of Eliot Ness however, and in effect also his mentor, is grizzled, cynical but knowledgeable and dignified and honourable Irish cop Jimmy Malone, destined never to rise too high up the ranks in a Chicago police force that is just as corrupt as the bootleggers. A great role for Sean Connery, and also a deserved Oscar winner.(SPOILER) De Palma's most brilliant touch was to cast a major star for the cop who dies for his convictions - another reference to Hitchcock, killing off his most famous face before the end of the film, and giving the story quite a dramatic punch.

The void that Connery creates after his loss has a similar impact to that of Gandalf or Obi-Wan Kenobi, and it pushes the remaining untouchables to fight their corner all the harder. De Palma soon pulls out all the stops, and is at his most brilliant and excessive in the staircase battle in Chicago station, a shameless rip-off of the most famous scene from Battleship Potemkin. For those who haven't seen Eisenstein's film, this is a bravura piece of tension-building (and was also itself sent up in the third Naked Gun film).

I came to The Untouchables late, just after it had finished its main theatrical release, when I had decided to edge uncertainly back to the cinema of my post-childhood (see Cry Freedom blog). The opportunity eventually came round for me on rental video, the pan-and-scan not doing justice to Stephen Burum's stylish Panavision photography (not forgetting of course a rousing and typically punchy score by Ennico Morricone), but was still surprisingly effective as a gangster entertainment of basic good versus evil.

Kevin Costner has never had a better vehicle, taking on his daunting opponent De Niro with father figure Connery keeping him in check. It may not be as layered or as dark dramatically as other gangster or crime thrillers (De Palma often paints his characters with a broad brush), but the combination of toughness, sincerity, style, Connery, De Niro, De Palma, and Costner, makes for cinematic dynamite.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

"My analysis of this soul, the human psyche, leads me to believe that Man is not truly one, but truly two. One of him strives for the nobility of life, this we call his good self. The other, seeks an expression of impulses that bind him to the earth. This we may call the bad."

This seems ever such a pertinent film, in the light of recent events about revelations of celebrity child abuse or abuses of power in positions of influence. In the case of so many of these unmentionables, the phrase "Jekyll and Hyde personality" has invariably been coined.

In spite of the many fine actors who have taken on the challenge, it's a notoriously difficult achievement to pull off. Not the Hyde part - that's a gift for any imposing actor worth his salt. No, the difficult one to play is Jekyll, for he has to carry the all too underestimated banner of sincerity, and what this brilliantly literate and chilling 1931 version of the often told story had, with the wonderful Fredric March, was Jekyll's suppressed eroticism.

Robert Louis Stevenson based his story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll (pronounced "Gee-kull") and Mr. Hyde on the activities of Dr. Robert Knox, a renowned Edinburgh surgeon by day who resorted by night to hiring the services of the infamous William Burke and William Hare to supply him with fresh corpses for his microscope (the history was later adapted in other films such as Flesh and the Fiends and The Body Snatcher). It was the aspect of a good man on the outside dabbling in evildoings on the inside that so intrigued Stevenson, and subsequent storytellers and dramatists since.

The first notable name to take on the challenging role(s) was Edward Mansfield, who shocked London
theatre audiences every night his seeming physical transformation right in front of their eyes, without any need of off-stage trickery. Mansfield's example was followed by John Barrymore, who became the first notable silent film Dr. Jekyll. Using a little rustling of the hair and an adjustment of the muscles and a contortion of the body, he was able to emulate Mansfield's feat, and set the pattern for seeing Jekyll's transformation into Hyde before our very eyes.

Rouben Mamoulian went one step further in 1931 by adding brilliantly subtle photographic effects and filters that gave March the appearance of his face changing colour and transforming - when actually, the process was reversed: the filters initially covered up the marks. Seeing, as they say, is believing.

Indeed, the whole film uses the camera in a very clever way, often placing the viewer directly into Jekyll's perspective, looking at his friends or adversaries, but rarely seeing him - at first, until the transformations begin - to give the character an undercurrent of mystery and something dark hidden underneath. To transform one character into his complete antithesis requires a pretty strong test either of the audience's disbelief or of the make-up department. In the latter case Paramount came up with a memorably bestial Hyde, so unrecognisable that at times it's hard to believe that it's still Fredric March.

March himself was also a distinguished name of the American stage and then the screen, a frequent leading man to some of the most glamorous leading ladies such as Garbo, Norma Shearer, and at the time, Miriam Hopkins. As such, he was the ideal eligible romantic lead in a standard drama or romatic comedy of the time - and therefore also the ideal Dr. Jekyll, because he seems to be the most unlikely Mr. Hyde. His scenes with Rose Hobart (right) as his betrothed have all the required passion and tenderness to make one see how and why Jekyll is tempted into doing what he does.

His catalyst is flighty but vulnerable Cockney singer Ivy (Miriam Hopkins), in a a story notionally switched by
Hollywood from obscure Edinburgh to foggy London - thus establishing the legend often linked between Jekyll and Hyde and Jack the Ripper. Soon it becomes apparent that Jekyll's transformation into Hyde does not need the use of medicine alone; in one desperately poignant little scene, Jekyll watches a bird in a tree, only to see it stalked and hunted down by a cat. The subsequent act of minor savagery stirs Jekyll's emotions and turns him automatically into Hyde (in a style that The Incredible Hulk would later find useful), for his final rampage.

For this, March deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1931. Few can touch his achievement, or Mamoulian's.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Airplane! (1980) & The Naked Gun (1988)

The 1970s seemed to be the decade of disasters, or near disasters in the cinema. Whilst there were hijackings of  trains and airliners in real life, in the cinema every three years or so out came another airborne disaster movie, packed with stars in varying stages of their careers, in highly melodramatic and often improbable stages of peril whether in tower blocks, overturned liners, earthquakes and volcanoes, or most often of all, in the skies.

Improbable they may have been, but they successfully kept me away from flying for several years (as much as audiences were also dissuaded from swimming after Jaws.) The market had been well and truly laid bare with Airport 1979: The Concorde - following on from Airport 1975 and Airport '77, going all the way back to Airport in 1969, meaning that the series had spanned practically the entire decade.

Just one year after the last Airport film, at the beginning of the 80s came its spoof, and the mother of all spoofs.

There didn't seem to be a huge difference from this.... this.


Such a genre was ripe for parody, but when it came, the source material was interestingly not from the 70s, but the similarly insecure 1950s.

It is probably extremely difficult not to see Zero Hour nowadays without laughing at the many unintentionally funny scenes which Airplane! was to directly parody - some of the lines are even exact reproductions!

Back in their early Kentucky Fried Theatre days (of which the anarchic comedy Kentucky Fried Movie was an early film effort), the brothers Zucker and Jim Abrahams videotaped  a movie one evening in order to study the commercials that were useful material for parody (such as the Yuban "Jim never has a second cup" coffee ads), but their eyes were drawn irresistibly to the film that emerged between them: Zero Hour. Starring Dana Andrews as a traumatised WWII fighter pilot who suddenly has to re-utilise those skills when the entire crew of an airliner contract food poisoning, the film had limitless melodramatic and comedic possibilities, but played straight. It was so redolent of the 1950s, that the actual sounds of the aeroplane in Airplane! are not jets, but propellers.

The idea of a parody of Zero Hour was seized upon by Paramount, and veteran producer Howard Koch (who co-wrote Casablanca) helped guide these manic undergraduate filmmakers on their airborne laughter ride of a lifetime. Many of the jokes were crude, some topical ("I haven't felt as bad as this since we watched that Ronald Reagan film"), but the bottom line was that all were funny. Depending on your taste.

With a major Hollywood studio and producer to guide it, the project therefore attracted all manner of established veterans who were happily willing to send-up their image, even if few of them they were ever qualified for comedy. Some seasoned veterans were surprisingly adept, and all gave fine deadpan comic performances: Robert Stack, Peter Graves (my personal favourite), Lloyd Bridges - and Leslie Nielsen. In the latter's case, something of a future career was forged on this kind of comedy; no longer the straight-laced hero or the earnest pragmatist for Mr. Nielsen anymore (such as the captain of the Poseidon), oh no.

As a spoof, Airplane! cast its shadow for many years, so that come 1988, its memory was still fresh in people's minds, as much surely as Nielsen's deadpan doctor. And don't call him Shirley.

Immediately after the success of Airplane! (whilst an imitative follow-up Airplane II: The Sequel was being made by other hands), the Zuckers spread their wings onto television itself, spoofing that even more ubiquitous entity on TV, the cop show. Police Squad! received a small but nonetheless devoted cult following, only lasting one series, but left possibilities in later years for further development on the big screen....

For my 18th birthday, I decided to treat my parents to dinner, rather than them treating me, as I had officially come of age; in return for that, about a month later they offered to take me out to dinner somewhere some weeks later. The film we went to see that evening: The Naked Gun.

The cinema was the Century in Clacton (already covered with some nostalgia elsewhere in this blog), in the big screen with some of the Clacton denizens. My most vivid memory of that evening at the pictures was that of my mother exploding into laughter at the sight of the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran being kicked in the groin and punched by Lt. Frank Drebin (Nielsen), to reveal a mohican punk hairstyle under his turban! (The Zuckers often had this "explosive" effect their audiences.)

This rather sinister prologue to The Naked Gun seems oddly prescient, in view of subsequent political events where we (ie. America) went to war or near-war with most of these nasties, the two missing from the picture at the time being Saddam Hussain and Osama Bin Laden. Chief baddie of the piece however, is Vincent Ludwig (pronounced "Ludd-wigg"), played by the ever panther-like Ricardo Montalban, who could play scary villains in his sleep, and as the poster publicity so aptly puts it, "even Mother Theresa wanted him dead".

The plot is just a little more involving and dramatic than the average episode of Police Squad!, and also even scores one or two points up from Airplane!  by having Frank Drebin as the central protagonist of the story rather than having several character viewpoints.

That, coupled with some hilarious set pieces. The terrorism prologue I've already mentioned, but there are plenty of others such as the hilarious opening credit sequence, Drebin's hand caught in a fish tank, and the climactic baseball game (complete with Jeanette Charles herself as the Queen) where the tone-deaf Drebin unwisely stands in for a famous opera singer and is required to sing Star Spangled Banner. My favourite is the farcical car chase with a Learner Driver (such a real possibility in the car-obsessed United States), and her bewildered instructor beautifully underplayed by the late John Houseman in a priceless uncredited cameo.

The teaming of Nielsen and his sultry but inwardly kooky leading lady Priscilla Presley was sufficient to see through two successful sequels, The Naked Gun 2 and a Half: The Smell of Fear and The Naked Gun 33 and a Third (a title for older audiences to recognise), the last in the series featuring two figures who sadly became almost as infamous as the Zuckers and co.: O.J.Simpson, and his murdered wife Nicole Brown Simpson.

Neither Airplane! or The Naked Gun are masterpieces, but if films were scored on how much they made (and still make) audiences laugh, they would win the Gold and Silver at the Comedy Olympics every time.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

There are countless versions of this play done to death every summer, it is the perennial Shakespeare in the Park favourite (such as the Priory Players' 2013 version - left). There have been a few cinema versions too, most recently a stylish and enjoyably relaxed 1999 version with Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer. This particular forgotten classic however comprehensively belies the notion that Shakespeare is only for British actors.

Being a Hollywood film, its cast is therefore mostly American, although with only one or two expatriate Brits thrown in to that endearing, now long lost community once known as the Hollywood Cricket Club.

The team behind the camera, significantly, is also richly European and talented, primarily that of its chief coordinator Max Reinhardt, who brought his grand semi-musical interpretation of Shakespeare's play to the silver screen with the assistance of Warner Brothers. And a silver screen it is too, shimmering with light and magic thanks to Hal Mohr's cinematography, in the spirit of the story. Another significant name attached to the project was composer/arranger Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who began a long association with Warners.

The remaining cast were from the cream of Warners' contract players. Ensemble character stars like Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert, Dewey Robinson and Joe E. Brown were regular comedic faces in those days, and they add to the flavour of the film in their scenes as the mechanicals - and at their centre of course, is the one and only James Cagney.

The sight of Cagney's head being transformed into a donkey's is one of those rare cinema moments that just has to be seen, worth the admission alone, for the sheer novelty of seeing this legendary movie gangster being transformed into something rather different. Cagney invests the role of Bottom with all the passion and enthusiasm that he brought to all his cinema and theatre work, and is a suitable reminder that he was more than just a tough guy.

The transformation of Bottom is a highlight for me, particularly in any film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as the play usually cheats the audience of seeing the transformation by having it take place offstage. Bottom's antagonist, in this case, is the mischievous Puck, played with a delightful childish chuckle and
revelatory energy, by Mickey Rooney (on loan from MGM). As summoned by the imposing Victor Jory as Oberon, Puck also works his mischievous magical influence on the young lovers of the piece (for Shakespeare comedies wouldn't be Shakespeare comedies without them!), Ross Alexander, Jean Muir, crooner Dick Powell, and taking her bow on the silver screen, pretty young Olivia De Havilland, who emerges as Hermia with all the eager enthusiasm and talent of a young actress fresh out of drama school. The cinema was a medium she was to later adapt and soon grow to love.

In short, all those involved in A Midsummer Night's Dream hurl themselves into it with great gusto, as well as the knowledge that they were involved in something unique and quite special. Sometimes Shakespeare is taken for granted as being good just because it's Shakespeare. This Hollywood (but never Hollywoodised) classic demonstrates just how enjoyable the play can be. For me, it's the definitive film version.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Goldfinger (1964)

The Bond Brand

For me, the Bond films are an acquired taste. Very formulaic, and rigidly so until Casino Royale in 2006. With their variations, the Bond formula generally seems to run as follows:

1. The opening shot (literally) through a gunsight

2. The pre-credits sequence

3. The titles and theme song

4. The mission set-up (with M and Q)

5. Meeting the villain and Bond Girl No. 1

6. Meeting Bond Girl No. 2

7. The finale

All these elements found their ideal mixture in Goldfinger in 1964, the defining film of the series which also had one of Bond's most formidable adversaries, with Sean Connery at his most assured in the central role from first scene to last.

He may not be the exact Bond as written in the books, but as with so many good actors' interpretation of a role, Connery is the image that has stayed in the minds of cinemagoers, and which all subsequent Bond actors in the role have since had to emulate.

It probably helped Sean that he had actors the stature of Honor Blackman to deal with, fresh from The Avengers, as Pussy Galore - probably the most outrageously named character in the movies.

And then there is Goldfinger himself - brilliantly played by Gert Frobe in a role which set up his international film career - and his equally sadistic Oddjob, memorably played by Japanese American wrestler Tokiyushi "Harold" Sakata, with a nice line in sly grins and a lethal bowler hat.
Goldfinger is not a supervillain per se, but one who is sadistic enough to leave Bond to die in a famous laser execution scene - nothing at all to do with the Ian Fleming novel, but one of a number of the film's beautiful conceits.

In Fleming's novel there was an unsuccessful attempt to raid Fort Knox - but this was the 1960s, the era of John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement, and the emerging space age, when all things were possible, and in director Guy Hamilton's eyes, the idea of a break-in not working would be understandably anti-climactic to the cinema audience. There are various ludicrous twists such as the nerve gas sprinkled over the fortress only having a limited effect, but the film carries you along with enough suspense to make it look as if Goldfinger is really going to succeed in his elaborate scheme. For me, it's easily the most enjoyable of the series.

Thereafter, the Bond films went on an artistically downward (but financially upward) spiral of increasingly fantastic plots, gimmicky gadgets, and self-parody, but those that succeeded King Connery have their various interesting slants on the character. Connery's unfortunate successor was George Lazenby, who by his own admission couldn't act, and worse still had the challenge of emotional scenes that neither Bond or Connery had ever ventured into. Nevertheless, On Her Majesty's Secret Service remains one of the most underrated of the series.

 For many, Roger Moore became the Bond they most associated with, certainly the longest serving, from 1973 through to 1985. His laid back style fitted into the tuxedo easily, from his grounding on The Saint and other suave film and TV shows. So what if the sight of a car becoming a submarine was a bit daft - Moore was enjoying himself, and so were the audience.

The unluckiest of the Bonds was probably Timothy Dalton, who only had two refreshingly action-packed stabs at the character in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, before contractual difficulties, the transition of the Broccoli legacy from one generation to the next, and the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, meant that Bond laid low for a while. When he returned, it was in the shape of suave Pierce Brosnan , who like Roger Moore had done his groundwork on TV in the likes of Remington Steele. Up until Goldeneye in 1995, he was - next to Cary Grant - the Best Bond That Never Was.

When Brosnan cited Goldfinger as being his main artistic inspiration for becoming an actor, things had come full circle. Now Daniel Craig has, for better or worse (and mostly better), taken on the role deep into the 21st century and the post-Cold War years. The plots are becoming more baffling, the gadgets are gradually escalating once again, and in this Size Zero supermodel age there's always plenty of opportunity for more Bond girls (Barbara Bach, Grace Jones, Carey Lowell, Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry among the most notable), so the formula is looking good after 50 years of repackaging.

Goldfinger was the peak of Bond's cinematic accomplishments, but there's still life in the old dog yet.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films