Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Omen (1976)

"When the Jews return to Zion,

and a comet rips the sky,

and the Holy Roman Empire rises,
then you and I must die.
From the eternal sea He rises,
turning armies against either shore,
turning Man against his brother.

Till Man exists no more."

Complete poppycock of course, but with a hint of the Book of Revelation about it, and delivered in such a way to make it feel compelling and chillingly predictive. The one actual quote from the Bible does appear at the end of the film:

"Here is Wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is 666."

The theme of the three sixes forms the basis for David Seltzer's slightly overrated but highly commercial script, which thanks to the careful direction of Richard Donner made The Omen a compelling premise for the rise of the Antichrist in the late 20th century, and a big hit for a 1970's American audiences still trying to come to terms with a society crumbling and the Vietnam war being lost, and needing some sort of spiritual solace or affirmation in a similar vein to The Exorcist.

Opening apocalyptically enough, on the 6th June at 6am, we see the dignified figure of Gregory Peck, no less, as American diplomat Robert Thorn (changed from "Jeremy" Thorn because of the similarity to the controversial British MP Jeremy Thorpe) urgently on his way to a Rome hospital where his wife Kathy (Lee Remick) is in labour, but the news - dare one say the omens - are not good. A mysterious priest (Martin Benson) reveals in voiceover that their baby son died soon after leaving the womb. But deliverance is at hand. For fear that the loss of another baby (there'd been an earlier miscarriage) would destroy Kathy, Thorn apprehensively agrees to secretly take on another little sprog as substitute, that happened be born the same time as the Thorns' beloved, with "its mother" dying in childbirth.

"On this night Mr. Thorn, God has given you a son.", the priest declares, and so Thorn walks in with little Damien in his arms to the delight of the innocently unaware Mrs. Thorn, who is told that this is her child. Little though Thorn realises it, he has made a fateful decision which will herald the beginning of the apocalypse....

...though there's little sign of it at this early stage in proceedings. Interestingly, Donner's approach was to treat the story as a gradual mental deterioration of the principal characters rather than as a definite charting of the rise of the Antichrist. It is this straightforwardness, combined with suspenseful elements of the potentially supernatural that make The Omen so effective. The truth of the matter is never in doubt as far as the audience is concerned however, thanks to the ominous opening credits and Jerry Goldsmith's screechingly Gothic theme music.

But indeed, for the next reel or two, all seems to proceed smoothly and happily for the Thorns, and unusually for a horror film, it even briefly takes on the pretence of being a love story. There's some more good news just round the corner for the Thorns too: Robert has been promoted (prophetically perhaps) to the Court of St. James, ie. US Ambassador to London (in those days the most senior role outside the White House), thanks to a little helpful influence from an old college roommate: the President of the United States.

One particular reason for my enthusiasm for The Omen was its choice of location. Back in the 1970's Star Wars was the thing, but that was set in a galaxy far, far away, and shot in distant faraway countries (with the exception of Elstree Studios). Here on the other hand, was a film which contained similar elements of the fantastic, but in recognisable places, and right in one's back yard so to speak. I've since visited some of these locations, including the actual US Embassy in Grosvenor Square (left), and also Pyrford Court in Woking, which becomes Thorn Manor, and where the first signs of untoward happenings begin to occur. It is Damien's 5th birthday, and he's now grown into the cherubic but slightly mischievous looking form of Harvey Stephens - it amused me how, being born myself in 1971, this 1976 film therefore had the Antichrist born at a similar time!

At the sight of an unidentified stray bloodhound, Damien's nanny (Holly Palance) inexplicably decides to hang herself, in full view of all the partygoers, including the horrified Thorns, and a seedy looking photographer, Keith Jennings (David Warner), who's been on the look-out for any dirt to dish out - and may bitten off much more than he can chew.

Pursuing the story further, Jennings decides to stick around the US Embassy, where an odd little priest, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) turns up, not to spread the good tidings of the Lord, as Thorn expects, but to tell him that he is the father of Satan. Thorn naturally decides to thrown the old codger out, but Brennan has a chilling coda: he has seen Thorn's "son" being born (overlooking how a mad Irish priest would be anywhere near a hospital in Rome.) As Brennan is escorted out of Grosvenor House, Jennings takes a photo, and then things start to get a bit odd, as the photograph of Brennan has a strange mark on the negative, the same as for the dead nanny.

The seemingly normal but slightly odd developments continue when a replacement nanny arrives from nowhere, a Mrs. Baylock, played with deceitful relish by Billie Whitelaw as a sort of Machiavellian Mary Poppins. Soon the real mother and son relationship is not between Kathy and Damien, but Damien and Mrs. Baylock.

Damien himself then starts behaving strangely - common for a five-year old you might think - at a high society wedding for one of Thorn's friends, because of the sanctity of a very Gothic looking church - Guildford Cathedral in fact (left), and is prepared to go to the length of pulling Mummy Thorn's hair out to prevent himself entering holy ground. Loving Kathy deduces that the little brat's just had a bad moment, as there's nothing else wrong with him - at all. He's never even had a cold, Thorn notices, as well as noticing that mangy mutt from the birthday party is still hanging around the house.

At Windsor, things fare no better for the Thorns: Kathy takes Damien on a mother-and-son bonding trip to the Safari Park, but this time instead of the little beast not liking the place, it's the little beasts that don't like Him. Ambassador Thorn meanwhile is on official business at a rugby match near Windsor Castle, with Jennings ever on the look-out, when that pesky priest turns up again, and demands a showdown with Thorn, as his wife is in danger this time - not to mention the whole world.

The grounds of Shepperton Studios, where Father Brennan confronts Thorn after the rugby match.

At Bishop's Park in Fulham (right) seated by the Thames, with a grave, martyr-like tone in his voice, Brennan recites the apocalyptic verse about Jews returning to Zion, etc., which proves to haunt Thorn in his subsequent travails, but at the time he dismisses it as nonsense.

Brennan's time is up however, and as Thorn departs, some unnatural winds begin to stir up in the trees....

The nervous priest rushes through Bishop's Park towards All Saints Church next door (left), which alas is locked, and a bolt of lightning just happens to strike a weather vane on the church tower, which flies off and impales Brennan right through the heart. Serves him right for delivering the Antichrist.

The weird deaths continue: the already plastercasted Kathy (who's had another miscarriage thanks to naughty Damien) is thrown out of a hospital window (filmed at Northwick Park) by the evil Mrs. Baylock, but the piece de resistance comes much later in the film with the demise of Jennings - who by now has decided to get in on the act with Thorn to find out the truth - decapitated by a sheet of glass, a suitable send-off for perhaps the most interesting character in the film.

Thorn realises that enough is enough, and sets out with the daggers that will destroy the son of Satan given to him by an old exorcist named Bugenhagen (an uncredited Leo McKern) who, though German-named, lives for some reason underground in Jerusalem - even odder than an Irish priest from Rome.

Thorn outwits Damien's demonic guard dog, and then defeats the even more demonic Mrs. Baylock (aka. "Balaack" the beast) in the film's one moment of genuine silliness - before we come to the main event of Damien himself, who is hurled out of Pyrford Court and driven at breakneck speed down the road to St. Peter's Church in Staines, but not before a police escort is on the trail of the irrational American ambassador.

Damien makes his first - and potentially last - visit to hallowed ground, and Thorn looks to God for assistance on the altar, as he raises the first dagger to do the ghastly deed. But a police marksman is on hand to intervene...

At the film's end, at a funeral at Brookwood Cemetery in Woking (standing in for Arlington), guess who's holding the hand of the President of the United States, with not a scratch on his impish little face....

The policeman's intervention at the climax of The Omen suggested the theme of a possible corporate conspiracy to protect Satan, in order to appoint Him to the pinnacle of power, a theme that was continued in DAMIEN: OMEN II (1978), which was also unfortunately a basic rehash of the original, with William Holden (who turned down the Gregory Peck role) as Damien's uncle, and for me, the bad idea of shifting the setting away from Europe into rather less Gothic corporate America. The sequel's lack of success led to the apocalypse being downscaled from four films to three, with Damien grown into sinister adult Aryan-looking Sam Neill by the time of THE FINAL CONFLICT (1981), although at least this rather low-budget rendering of the apocalypse did have the good sense to return the setting to Europe, with Damien Thorn following in his father's footsteps to Grosvenor Square, and the score by Jerry Goldsmith is his best of the entire Omen trilogy. A half-hearted TV sequel came along in 1991, but by then the story had pretty much been told.

My own initial reaction to The Omen on first viewing, I must admit, was one of silliness, but it's grown on me since. The best and worst thing about it is the score by Jerry Goldsmith, which is overbearing at times, with its use of Satanic Latin chanting that make the outlandish deaths even more ridiculous. At other times however the music is much creepier and unsettling, in keeping with the tone of most of Donner's film. My favourite musical moment is the scene in Father Brennan's house, where Jennings and Thorn enter the dead priest's room wallpapered with pages from the Bible (the masterwork of art director Carmen Dillon), and Jennings unfurls the build-up of information leading to the unthinkable - at the end of which, he reveals the photograph foretelling himself being decapitated. Goldsmith builds up the atmosphere and then right at the end of the scene there's even a minor cadence of the decapitation music which will be reprised in much louder fashion later on. Goldsmith's Oscar for The Omen was at least deserved recognition for his lifetime's work in many different film genres.

The Omen
was one of a breed of films in the 1970s that dared to take chances (its twist ending was suggested late into production by Fox studio head Alan Ladd Jnr.), and did so in much subtler fashion than its many imitations or follow-ups. Its Biblical overtones and the use of various locations around the world helped to give it an epic feel (yet the film was actually made on a very restrained budget), and with the participation of a veteran Hollywood star at its centre, it hit the box office jackpot. The less said about the cut 'n' paste remake of 2006 (released on - aha! - 06/06/06), the better. That was truly the work of the devil.

See also The Omen Filming Locations

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Oh Mr Porter! (1937)

For some reason there's been a lot of stuff on the telly recently about railways and their history; timely enough therefore, that BBC Four should have been so providential to feature this old gem from the archives.

This is probably the best - certainly the best remembered - of all Will Hay's endearing British comedies where he played a slightly incompetent figure of mockable authority, especially those involving Moore Marriott (from The Crazy Gang) and Graham Moffatt - who played a cheeky schoolboy usually one step ahead of his master (Hay of course) in Good Morning Boys, and continued in that vein through this film and others.

These three (as directed by British comedy veteran Marcel Varnel - far right) were an incomparable trio - but there's much else to Oh Mr Porter! besides just them that make this such a classic. One factor not least, was the sleepy but highly nostalgic setting of an old railway station on the Irish border, a station so forgotten about that even the trains don't bother to stop there anymore!

"Buggleskelly" station was in fact Cliddesden, a delightfully out-of-the-way spot in a charming English village near Basingstoke. At the time of filming (in 1936) the line had closed and much of the track was already being torn up; in the meantime it was the perfect spot for the film makers to use as their out-of-the-way and forgotten fictitious station on the Irish border. Little remains of the station today, but the attractive trees that lined the platform still stand neatly in a row, as does the outline of the old Basingstoke to Alton route itself. With a bit of judicious dressing up by the Gainsborough Studios art department, adding a signal box and covering the corrugated iron roof of Cliddesden with wooden planks, shabby, crazy-house looking Buggleskelly station was born, to be immortalised in film comedy history.

Even shabbier looking than the station however, is old Harbottle (Marriott), the chief clerk and assistant porter, whose three word answer to any passenger's enquiry is "Next train's gone!" Together with the aforementioned Graham Moffatt as Albert the porter (with a small "p"), and the station's resident engine "Gladstone" (a refashioning of "Northiam" from the Rother Valley Railway in Kent), this motley assortment of a station staff might well be a credit to Network Rail today, but as far as the good people of the Northern Irish railway are concerned, it seems the perfect place for shabby-but-well-bred-and-impossible-to-know-what-to-know-what-to-do-with wheeltapper William Porter (Hay) to become station master - and with good reason: Buggleskelly is a cursed line.

This second spooky factor to its success owes a certain amount of debt (superficially) to Arnold Ridley's The Ghost Train - and it's appropriate perhaps, that there should be a distinct air of the later Dad's Army about the antics of Messrs. Hay, Marriott and Moffatt. Indeed, Will Porter could be considered the cinematic ancestor to Captain Mainwaring. As in the Ridley play, the legend of "One-Eyed Joe" the Phantom Miller is a pretence of some shadier dealings, and the film's generally light-hearted tone is offset nicely by a ghoulish and memorable cameo by Dennis Wyndham as the sinister "Joe", captain of the "Buggleskelly Wednesday".

Will's serendipitous meeting with the villain comes as a result of a brawl in the saloon - as always for any film set in Ireland seemingly - from which Albert and Harbottle are knocked out cold. Come the morning, with Porter's special excursion to Connemara (containing the Buggleskelly Wednesday) having mysteriously vanished, the boys naturally think the old man's off his head, like all the previous station masters before him. And worse is to come for Porter - the locals discover he's seen One-Eyed Joe!

Undaunted, the intrepid Will investigates, with the grudging help of his two cohorts.

At the film's heady climax, the three heroes are stuck on separate ends of the haunted windmill's sails (filmed at Terling in Essex), and following the staple rule of old comedy, there's a chase at the end, with Gladstone chuffing away for all her worth (through the Basingstoke rail sidings) with the dastardly crooks on board, trapped inside - in the days before auto-locking - by the resourceful Albert who sits atop the coach roof bashing any interlopers over the head with his shovel. Apparently that really was Graham Moffatt strapped to the top of a moving train.

Oh Mr Porter! in a way has set the image of the well-meaning but ultimately incompetent railway station master, and many other subsequent cliches. The title itself was derived from a popular song of the times, and subsequent railway stories have borrowed various elements from Marcel Varnel's film - such as the TV comedy series Oh Doctor Beeching! among others.

And if you think of the two unmistakable images of Will Hay, it will be either in the mortarboard and master's gown of Good Morning Boys, or as the inept station master of Buggleskelly.

"Oh Mister Porter, what a funny man you are!"

"Buggleskelly" station today

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Casino Royale (2006)

For as long as the Broccoli family have been making the Bond series, they had always secretly wanted to make Casino Royale; for almost as long as I can remember developing an interest in the series, I'd always felt that the great unmade Bond film was Casino Royale. Both of us had to wait a long time for our dreams to come true - and when they did, the result was quite something else indeed: a third animal, the tougher, grittier James Bond with new added feeling.

If you look way back to the first Bond film, Dr. No in 1962, the very first sight of Sean Connery is at the Baccarat table. For the next four decades, the Broccolis would occasionally wheedle other tiny elements of the novel into their subsequent epics: a famous torture scene in Goldfinger has a golden laser threatening one particular part of Bond's anatomy, as in Casino Royale; a Baccarat game also pops up in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, as indeed does a tragic ending. A romanticised TV action biopic of Ian Fleming, Spymaster (starring Jason Connery), contained a similarly tragic love interest (played by Kristin Scott-Thomas), with echoes of Casino Royale's ill-fated heroine Vesper Lynd.

The reason for all this shying away from the actual novel itself was of course because the Broccolis and United Artists did not have the rights to adapt Ian Fleming's original story. That privilege had been granted in the early days to Columbia Pictures - who did make a film in 1967 which bore the title Casino Royale, but little else.

Brief mention should be made of this turkey, not because it's one of the biggest ever wastes of time, money and an all-star cast - with the essence of being made as one big Swinging Sixties party - but for its brief transference of the novel to the screen, with a fragmentary moment of suspense as Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers - posing as Bond) mentally jousts with Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) at the Baccarat table, and with the help of glamorous Vesper(Ursula Andress), manages to win, but with unfortunate repercussions.

Whatever may have resulted from director Joseph McGrath's version version of the film will never be known, as McGrath was kicked out soon afterwards at Peter Sellers' insistence, and then Sellers himself (in something of a state of near mental breakdown) also walked out.

Desperate to make a film that would out-spoof the official spoofs, producer Charles Feldman came up with the madcap idea of overloading the film with another five directors (including John Huston and Val Guest) and several stars, including David Niven (Ian Fleming's original choice) to play "Sir" James Bond. The 1967 film was fun - for those in the mood, and for those making it at the time - but the novel had been shamelessly lampooned and dismembered, with little resemblance to its original plot.

Roughly a decade before, there had also been an intriguing American live TV version for NBC's "Climax Theatre", with Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre overshadowing Barry Nelson's uncomfortable looking Bond - switched from a British to an American Secret Service agent. But by and large, proper cinematic justice had not been done to the original novel, and up till recently it seemed that perhaps it never would.

But then in 2002, after Die Another Day had taken the gadgets and the elaborate action (and in-jokes from the previous 40 years of Bond films) that little bit too far, speculation was rife that the series was about to be injected with new blood. Various star names were banded about for the lead role such as Russell Crowe or Clive Owen. The new choice to replace Pierce Brosnan however, when it came, proved to be a highly controversial one for many of the fans.

My own initial reaction to the casting of Daniel Craig was admittedly one of abject surprise; Craig is normally the sort of actor generally more suited to hard-edged villainy than that of the protagonist himself, and up till then Bond had also nearly always been associated with being suave and black-haired. On the other hand, it sounded like a welcome return to a more hard-edged 007 in the tradition of Timothy Dalton and Sean Connery - and most exciting of all, it was to be an adaptation of the first Bond novel (at long last) following on from the recent vogue for "prequels" that allowed established characters to be reinvented in a new format.

With a certain amount of trepidation at how exactly they were going to "modernise" the novel (keeping such recent elements as Judi Dench as "M"), I rubbed my hands together in anticipation.

Fleming's debut novel has all the elements of intrigue, suspense, glamour, romance, politics (intrinsically the Cold War - not the War on Terror) and ultimately, tragedy. It's also the only one of Fleming's yarns that I felt sufficiently motivated to read (in the mid-1990s), to get a proper impression of the story, after seeing the largely unsatisfying and unrepresentative film versions.

As in the novel, the centrepiece of the 2006 film is not the high-octane action (which includes a very energetic chase sequence with stuntman Sebastien Foucan), but the pivotal card game (changed from Baccarat to "Texas Hold 'Em" Poker for modern purposes.) It's to the credit of the scriptwriters and director Martin Campbell that this long running batle of wits holds the attention - keeping true to Fleming's style with the occasional tense moment of action thrown in, such as an assassination attempt not on Bond, but on Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) by some of his vengeful African creditors. Having ironically saved the enemy he is hoping to destroy, Bond comforts Vesper (Eva Green) sitting fully clothed in the shower trying to calm herself. Much attention was focused on this new "humanist" approach (as written by co-screenwriter Paul Haggis) which Daniel Craig was instrumental in helping to bring about.

The other notable interruption to the card game (in the novel) is in the form of an unexpected intervention by an agent of Le Chiffre's with a lethal walking stick (a striking resemblance to the "poisoned umbrella" that killed Russian defector Georgi Markov and more recently Alexander Litvinenko.) In the new version, Bond swallows a lethal substance (administered into the obligatory glass of Martini), and only thanks to the quick thinking of those back at MI6 on a live link-up, is he able to bring himself back round, with Vesper coming to the rescue too.

The two characters of James and his lover are also more closely established that in most Bond romances. As well as the aforementioned bathroom scene, there is also a moment when Vesper enters the casino, resplendent in a gown that Bond has ordered her to wear (to distract the other players) but she walks in so that James can see her. Bond is likewise touched by the gesture. Although Eva Green's slightly stilted French speaking of English makes for not the most ideal chemistry with Daniel Craig (various actresses such as Thandie Newton tried and failed to seure the role), and the climactic action scene in Venice is pure nonsense (with a nod to The Maltese Falcon and its "heroine left in the elevator" finale), the quality of the story and the characterisation still comes through.

What seems most remarkable about it all, apart from the amount of faith kept with the original novel, is how the central character is of much greater interest than the actual plot or the action, coming through against all the opposition about his casting (as well the track record of all the previous Bonds), with his reputation and his Manhood intact, and setting a striking new note on a film character 44 years and 21 films old.

I choose this as a favourite because it was the film I'd always hoped would be made (properly), and for being so unexpectedly good - but I do wonder how long the freshness will last. Previous Bonds such as Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and even Sean Connery, had the tendency to fade after the first vivid impression - and films like the upcoming Quantum of Solace may well revert once again back to the gadgets and the outlandish action, rather than the combination of characterisation and sheer belligerence which made Casino Royale so effective.

The last scene of the 2006 film excitingly sets the stamp on this new leaner, meaner Bond. The first time I first read it, I knew that the book's famous last line (which does make it into the film) would be a hard sell for the Broccolis, and that Bond would have to be seen taking some sort of vengeance on his enemies. Sure enough - and satisfyingly enough - the mysterious Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) stands over the beautiful Lake Como, receives an unexpected phone call, and is suddenly struck by an assassin's bullet. Out steps 007, who stoops over his adversary, and utters the famous line.

To paraphrase, by the end there is one unmistakable impression left on the whole enterprise:

The name's Craig...Daniel Craig.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films