Saturday, 7 June 2008

Superman (1978)

70 years ago this month saw the creation of a comic book character by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, that has gone through various permutations since, having to deal first with the Depression and the Second World War and then the Cold War and the nuclear threat, until 40 years later, after many radio, television and film (serial) adaptations, it got its big screen treatment courtesy of the Salkind family and effervescent director Richard Donner, with surely the definitive performance in the title role by Christopher Reeve.

Reeve's brilliant fleshing out of the character is the best thing about Superman: The Movie (as it was known at the time for trademark purposes), but there are plenty of other elements that make this a pleasing - if over-inflated – all-round entertainment package, which proved to be another big hit with 1970's audiences.

The tone of the film also had the ideal mixture of comic book heroism and big screen spectacle, a style which was only eclipsed 10 years later by Tim Burton's Batman, which made comic book movies much darker.

My own memories are of it being the only actual film from the 70s where I had to queue round the block outside the Odeon Aylesbury to get in – a true "blockbuster" then, in every sense of the word. At the time the only other film of this kind I had seen was Star Wars(qv), for which there were certain similarities: outer space setting, with the sole survivor of a destroyed planet, similar to Princess Leia and Alderaan – and indeed Margot Kidder's Lois Lane is just as feisty and plucky as Leia Organa.

Though seeming very similar in style to George Lucas's space fantasy, Superman was at least five times more expensive than Star Wars, but not quite as well made. It was, as described by Les Keyser, "the epitome of Supersell", and rather harshly by Leslie Halliwell as "long, lugubrious and only patchily entertaining…with too many irrelevant preliminaries and a misguided sense of its own importance." It's certainly quite a long haul for a film of this kind, and yes, the opening scenes do seem to hang around for a while before we finally get to the main action – but in a way, I love how the Krypton and Smallville prologues give you a flavour of the background of the story, with some useful character insights into the whole upbringing of Kal-El, aka. Clark Kent, aka. Superman.

I well remember watching the start of the film, in the cosy main screen at Aylesbury, watching the similarly cosy image of a black-and-white 1930's Daily Planet building with nostalgic revolving sign on a globe, then zooming upwards into space, where out rush giant blue credits - again, very Star Warsy.

The first actor's name we see on those flying blue credit titles however, is not that of Christopher Reeve, but of the two "star" names in the film, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman - their contracts presumably stipulated they were billed that way.

Brando in fact has the main role for only the first 20 minutes of the film, but plays the role of Superman's father Jor-El (also with an "S" on his Kryptonian robes) with urbanity, clarity and Obi-Wan Kenobi-style authority. At the time I had no idea that he was a "Method" actor who tended to mumble and was very difficult to work with, nor that he had been paid an astronomical amount of money for just two weeks work; as far as I was concerned, he was the right man for this part, and played it well enough. It also has to be said that he had the ideal actors' director in Richard Donner.

Donner also coaxed an effective performance out of the other "above the title" star Gene Hackman, who by comparison with Brando at least gives partial value for money as Lex Luthor, cleverly combining devilish comedic charm with cold, clinical evil when it matters.

But that, ladies and gentlemen, is over an hour into the film. Before all this comes the spectre of the giant red Krypton sun onto the screen, and the mighty but vulnerable planet just below it, not long before its impending apocalypse, as predicted by Jor-El. He first of all however has to dispatch three revolutionary Krypton criminals (Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O'Halloran) into "The Phantom Zone", in quite a lively opening, followed by some slightly pompous scenes with the High Council, who are nearly all played by British actors (good ones too: Trevor Howard, Harry Andrews, etc.) who pay little attention to Jor-El's warnings.

All too late, the plaster-filled sets built at Pinewood (this in the days before CGI) begin to fall apart, and like Alderaan, the planet Krypton explodes, but not before Jor-El and his wife Lara (Susannah York) have safely sent off their only child, little Kal-El, into a Christmas Tree Star-shaped spaceship (intended as a prototype Krypton Arc) which scurries through "the 28 known galaxies", towards Earth.

Looking back to the 70s - in horror upon horrors, my old activity exercise book! – I could tell that the crash landing on Earth had a vivid impression on my memory, as also did the later rescue of Lois Lane from the top of the Daily Planet building.

Like the little spaceship, the film transports itself into another world; not the stylistic, oblique look of Krypton anymore, but a much more homely, believable environment in Smallville, with two excellent cameos by Phyllis Thaxter and Glenn Ford, who brings a great deal of world-weary integrity and fatherly dignity (more so than Brando) as Jonathan Kent, Kal-El's adoptive father - but for me much more of an Uncle Owen-type figure (another Star Wars connection.)

The evocative and beautifully shot Smallville scenes seem to be longer than they actually are, as though several Clark Kent "growing up" scenes had been cut, but this is not the case, it just feels that way. What there is however, is another good cameo by Jeff East as the young Clark Kent, who bears a useful facial similarity to Christopher Reeve (whose voice it is on the soundtrack.)

When the mood changes again, and Kal-El/Clark realises the call of duty (in the shape of a glowing Kryptonian crystal) by leaving Smallville and heading for the North Pole (more wonders worked by the boys at Pinewood), there is the brief return of Brando, introducing Jor-El to El Junior, explaining the job his son has to do on Earth. We get an ever so brief flutter of Superman's cape (45 minutes into the film), and then finally, in comes the third "world" of Superman The Movie: the Howard Hawks-style banter of The Daily Planet newsroom, in the great city of Metropolis (aka. New York, in all but name.)

Some of the dialogue for these scenes is really snappy and to-the-point, perhaps some of the best ever written for a fantasy film. There were a total of six credited writers during the lengthy pre-production (starting with The Godfather author Mario Puzo, whose heavy father-and-son synopsis was camped-up by Leslie and David Newman and Robert Benton), but apparently the best of the one-liners come from the pen of "Creative Consultant" Tom Mankiewicz (son of Joseph Mankiewicz), brought in by Donner late into production to give the film back some of its lost credibility.

If the witty (final draft) script of Superman tends to be overlooked, then so too is the wonderful cinematography of the late, great Geoffrey Unsworth (to whom the film is dedicated), whose distinctive texture to each of the respective worlds make the film every bit as bright, exciting and magical as it looks on the spin-off bubble gum cards.

All these different elements in the film are held together wondrously by John Williams's iconic score - another strong Star Wars connection - as well as production designer John
Barry. Barry's designs for Krypton and Fortress of Solitude are quite distinctive and recognisable, but his hideaway for Lex Luthor is a something else indeed: patterned on an
old subway station (the giant bookcase looks like it's always been there), as though the two designs were for completely different films.

Another forgotten aspect of the secret of Superman's success, is Reeve's brilliantly subtle and comedic portrayal of the adult Clark Kent, borrowing elements of Cary Grant comedies in the 30s and 40s (when he was also bespectacled), and creating a genuine character that is quite different in tone from Superman. Like with many portrayals of Jekyll & Hyde over the years, various actors have successfully put across the aggressive, dramatic side of the character, but fared less well with the gentler other half. Reeve is the only actor to have successfully nailed both.

It is more or less at the half-way point when SUPERMAN as we know him finally swings into action, rescuing the perilous Miss Lane from the top of the Daily Planet, and then foiling various petty crimes around Metropolis, with consummate charm and wit. I remember well Christopher Reeve's first "excuse me" line to a jive man, which got a big laugh in the audience.

It is Clark Kent however, who first hears Lex Luthor's sonic calling card (another brilliant touch by Donner) whilst being given a dressing down by his unsuspecting editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper), paving the way for the big confrontation between the two arch enemies, two thirds of the way into the film.

Whilst Lex distracts Superman with his grandiose plans for world domination (to wipe out most of California in order to create his own real estate), these very same plans are actually being carried out. Superman learns of the plot, but Luthor has the measure of him, allowing Superman to deduce that the missile detonator is hidden in a lead covered box (that he can't see through), but revealing instead a chunk of deadly Kryptonite! (Another brilliant reprise of the Krypton theme by John Williams.)

"Mind over muscle?", Luthor teases, and like all master criminals in the movies, he complacently explains all his plans to the hero and then leaves him to die in the pool.

So - gasp! - is this the end of Superman, in his first feature film? For a time, it looks like the answer's going to be Yes, but Luthor has reckoned without his voluptuous mistress Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), whose mother lives in the town (oh brother, what a cop out!) where one of the nuclear missiles will fall. Quickly, she dives into the pool, gives Superman a quick kiss - for fear that he won't let her later - and throws the offending piece of Kryptonite off his neck. If this seems like a heroic touch from a nice girl after all, it should also be noted that she has also calmly and clinically set the codes for the missile which will destroy California.

The resultant earthquake which follows demonstrates where a lot of the budget was spent, including some great miniature work by Derek Meddings, with a very realistic depiction of the Golden Gate bridge coming apart and threatening a school bus.

Superman saves the kids, and a few thousand others, including Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) when the Hoover Dam bursts, but unfortunately is too late to save Lois, who sinks with her car into a crevice created by the earthquake (scenes that upped the certificate from "U" to "A" in Britain) and dies.

Reeve is very effective here in bringing out Superman's lonely despair, and decides to break his father's ultimate taboo of "interfering with human history". The twist of turning the Earth back to save Lois's life is contrived, but it does at least bring the story full circle, with both Jor-El and Jonathan Kent being a prime influence on Superman's decision - albeit two hours after those characters were last seen.

So from here the film winds down to a relatively gentle conclusion, with the evil Luthor now all too gullible to Superman's invincibility, and is dispatched off to maximum security jail - and to my shock, I discover his character is bald! (Remember, this was my first experience of the Superman legend.) The closing credits begin to roll - all seven minutes of them, something which I didn't know at the time, because I was already out of the cinema by then.

Other excesses, such as a "musical" number Can You Read My Mind? - which presumably on the grounds of Margot Kidder's vocal talents, is spoken rather than sung - are a little more noticeable, as also are unnecessary comedy scenes with Luthor's buffoonish sidekicks: his stereotypical henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) is described in publicity as "bumbling but scientifically brilliant". There's little evidence of that in the film, beyond a macabre little moment when he strolls calmly underneath Central Station, avoiding a trailing cop who is killed by a passing train.

All of these trifles meant little to me at the time however: it was just a darn good fantasy film, if only slightly longer than Star Wars, I felt.

Of the subsequent sequels that followed, only SUPERMAN II is worth any real mention, with the three Krypton villains glimpsed at the beginning of Superman The Movie coming back to wreak vengeance and rule the Earth, whilst Clark Kent (or does he look more like Clark Reeve?) is once again distracted, this time by his love for Lois Lane. Terence Stamp enjoys himself as General Zod, and this first sequel is the only one to properly take the Superman legend by the scruff of the neck and give it a good rollicking rollercoaster ride - and indeed, most of it was shot at the same time as Part I, by Richard Donner, with namesake Richard Lester ably filling in some of the remaining scenes, the way the Salkinds preferred it.

Whatever happened to Richard Donner? His previous experience on TV episodes of The Twilight Zone as well as The Omen demonstrated a director with a fine flair for bringing out the supernatural and making it seem convincing within a "real" setting. I have the feeling the maybe the experience of being sacked from Superman II knocked some of the creative stuffing out of him, and he has since settled upon relatively lightware fare such as the Lethal Weapon films. A recent DVD release of the "Richard Donner Cut" of Superman II has helpfully recovered some of the lost material for all to see.

Come to that, whatever became of Christopher Reeve? Well, as is well known, a riding accident suffered in 1994 paralysed him from the neck down, and so his true test of superstrength came with his efforts to fight the condition, and help promote stem sell research in finding an eventual cure.

It could be said that his career suffered the so-called "Curse of Superman" which also befell his namesake, George Reeves (suicide - allegedly by thinking he could fly), and others connected with the legend - Margot Kidder for one.

I prefer to think however that this career-defining role was a hard act to follow, and though none of his subsequent films are particularly bad to sit through (and certainly not Reeve's fault if they are) they can't possibly hold up a candle to Superman. In each of his other films, you're often expecting him to fly into action and overcome his character's problems in superhuman ways.

It is testimony to the impact of his performance, that when Bryan Singer remade a quasi-sequel in 2006, SUPERMAN RETURNS, many of the elements were borrowed from Richard Donner's film - with Brandon Routh in the title role carrying strong elements of impersonation of (or should I more charitably say, homage to) Christopher Reeve.

And there's one abiding lesson for all the ladies: there may not be any men in the world who can fly faster than a speeding bullet, but there are certainly many, many thousands of potential Clark Kents.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films