Sunday, 19 December 2010

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

If Five Easy Pieces was a great evocation of the downside of the American Way, then this is the great affirmation of it.

The life mentioned in the title is actually pretty dark and cruel at times - I mention this by way of contrast in what is generally considered to be a sentimental classic and one of Frank Capra's most beloved of films, and also arguably James Stewart's greatest role.

The darkness wasn't just confined to the screen: in the hardened post-war years of the 1940s, the American Dream was also the birth of film noir with established classics like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, The Killers, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Asphalt Jungle, which represented much more the darker side of human nature, so that by comparison to all these, It's a Wonderful Life seemed a little sentimental and old-fashioned, in keeping with the "Capra-corn" values of the 1930s.

James Stewart however, had also come out of World War II as a decorated bomber pilot, and was ready for a return to acting with something a little edgier from his wholesome, regular guy image, and this seemed the perfect niche between the two. His George Bailey is one of life's would-be crusaders, an often selfless champion for other people's welfare, whilst himself always striving to see the world and enjoy all its richness and adventure - the perennial Luke Skywalker or Dorothy figure always yearning to leave the farm, but in his case never able to.

Not that George is unhappy; certainly not when he has the welcome arms of Donna Reed to fall into as his childhood sweetheart Mary, who becomes his wife and mother of their four children. He also has a thriving community in his home town of Bedford Falls, such as taxi driver Ernie (Frank Faylen) and his cop pal Bert (Ward Bond) - apparently the inspiration for the Bert & Ernie double act on Sesame Street. There's also the local vamp Violet (Gloria Grahame in sultry form), and two elderly gents who are a primal influence of George's life; his staunchly upstanding father Peter (a great cameo by Samuel Hinds) and ageing drugstore boss Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner - who by coincidence or otherwise played Jesus in King of Kings some 20 years before), who in a fit of grief nearly prescribes the wrong pills to a customer and is only prevented from committing manslaughter by George's quick thinking. The film also has its incidental charms, such as the prom dance which suddenly turns into a swimming bath, and a great ad lib moment when one of Bailey's customers (during the Wall Street crash) asks for a very small amount of money so that the Building & Loan can stay in business - Stewart gives the actress an impromptu smacker of a kiss.

If there is a weakness to the characters drawn by Capra for me, it is the need to create a physical villain of the piece, in the shape of Lionel Barrymore's Henry Potter: no fault of the actor himself, brilliantly played in Barrymore's distinctive style, just Capra's notion that all the meanness and cynicism of the world had to have a human face, when the real villain of IAWL is Fate itself.

All these disparate elements that weave through the film, and the whole generational span of George Bailey's life, come to their head when his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) loses a fortune by accident, and George is the one to suffer. Driven to imminent bankruptcy and rapidly sinking into despair and misfortune, he feels his life has become one big waste, and desires to jump off the bridge into the river - until an eccentric old gent named Clarence (the splendid Henry Travers) who happens to be George's guardian angel, jumps in the river first because he knows George's selfless nature to help others.

It's sometimes said that the things we take most for granted are those that we miss so much when they're gone. That certainly applies to IAWL's sinister third act, where George's tempestuous wish that he had never been born is granted, and we see the town Bedford Falls would have/has become without him: a den of vice, misery and corruption - sadly, a slight reflection of the modern world today - now impertinently named Pottersville, with Violet now a prostitute, old man Gower a self-pitying drunkard, and George's brother Harry drowned as a child because George was previously there to pull him out of the lake. Strangest (and perhaps most unlikely) of the lot, lovely Mary is a bookish spinster.

In my view, with this far greater and more sophisticated nightmarish twist in the tale than Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the resultant elation of George when he wishes his life back again and rushes along the street wishing everyone Merry Christmas, is put into context. The finale where all the friends and relatives club together to raise funds to take him out of debt, is pure Capracorn, but beautifully mounted, and quite satisfying - when, once again, you understand the circumstances.

For many people It's a Wonderful Life was first experienced as a perennial favourite for American TV audiences every Christmas. My good fortune however was to see it for the first time in the cinema on a 1997 re-release. Coming out of the auditorium that afternoon left me with a special feeling of deep self-gratification, a sense that one's own achievements, no matter how small or insignificant, have value and enrich the world. And It's a Wonderful Life and an enriching film indeed!

Friday, 26 November 2010

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Oscar Wilde once said that people destroy the thing they most love; whether that maxim applies to Jack Nicholson's Bobby Dupee is debatable, but there's clearly some element of denial in his self-loathing, as he seeks to shirk away from responsibility of anything he might be attached to. Never at any point does he cease to remind us that he is not someone to sympathise with; his actions at numerous points during the film detract from those friends and relatives around him - yet he is compelling and moving in one of Nicholson's best roles, in perhaps his and also Bob Rafelson's finest hour and three quarters, an indictment of the attitudes and neuroses of a disaffected generation of Americans in the post-1960s.

It also has some great cinematic moments that crystallize modern life - particularly the "chicken sandwich" diner scene where Bobby irritably smooth talks the waitress into giving him the order he wants. I'm also impressed by his bowling skills - Jack Nicholson was apparently the star player in the Walt Disney Cartoon Department's bowling team!

At the beginning of the film, Bobby has some measure of disaffected contentment, working on an oilrig with his buddy Elton (Billy Green Bush). But deep down Bobby knows that this is really only a life that he lives at a casual arm's distance, after he rebelled against the life given him by his well-to-do but suffocating family. It's this clash of different worlds, between down-at-heel and affluent, that informs Five Easy Pieces. A perceptive moment in the film is when his cousin chides Bobby for playing at vaudeville musical revue: "You don't really call that music, do you?" "Yes, I do. It's music."

Other men might have taken a benevolent view of the life they have been given, but Bobby is casually resentful (and secretly snobbish) about his pregnant, simple-minded girlfriend Rayette - sympathetically played by Karen Black.

His two worlds come into conflict when he learns from his dysfunctional sister (Lois Smith) that their father has suffered a stroke and is dying. A chance for redemption or some sort of closure presents itself - but all Bobby gets out of the experience is the hots for his brother's gifted but haughty wife Catherine (Susan Anspach), who is attracted to Bobby for his talent but likewise repelled by him, which only turns Bobby further on the road to self-expurgation.

It's perhaps appropriate, given the film's emotional apathy, that Bobby should make his confession to his father as a one-way conversation, with no opportunity for this particularly stern and disciplinarian figure to make his own influence on Bobby's aimlessness. This was quite a difficult scene for Nicholson to perform (his own parentage was as an orphan), but movingly draws upon his own personal upbringing.

In confess I've often felt like Nicholson in the film's unforgettable non-finale, where he stands in front of a mirror and stares at himself forlornly, and though I wouldn't go as far at hitching a lift northwards as he does, the emotional despair is certainly just as prevalent.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Metropolis (1926)

This was a familiar image before I'd even heard of Fritz Lang: not from Metropolis as you will notice, but Ralph McQuarrie's concept design for the humanoid robot in Star Wars - though with an eerie sense of deja vu. The name Metropolis itself (from the Greek for "Mother-City") is also associated with being the main earthbound city of Superman, and is synonymous with futurism and the whole notion of modern 21st century city life. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.

Such is the influence of this epic, the godfather of science fiction cinema, which is in itself a good deal more thoughtful and philosophical about the society in which we live than most of its successors, with all the naive, uneven stretches and great visuals that any modern sci-fi classic has. Yet it was made 84 years ago, and still seems just as prevalent.

Fritz Lang was highly influenced in the city look of Metropolis after his first visit to New York.

Its original time (of making) was the crest of the Expressionist wave of German cinema, of which Fritz Lang was one of its greatest exponents, and there could be fewer greater expressions than this one - which perhaps goes some way towards explaining the contrasting acting styles on offer. From Alfred Abel's stiff and sombre Joh Fredersen - the uncrowned king of Metropolis - and his idealistic and almost ceaselessly energetic son Freder (Gustav Frohlich), to the mostly demented but also brooding inventor Rotwang, played by Rudolf (Dr. Mabuse) Klein-Rogge, and at the centre of all this, an impressively balletic and agile performance (in a restricting skirt and sweater) from Brigitte Helm as Maria, an impossibly virtuous prophet for the needy on the one hand, but on the other a voluptuously cloned robot who intends to destroy not only the real Maria's good work, but also the city of Metropolis itself. But then the acting always took second place to the dazzling overall visual style.

The early 20th century - not long into the Industrial Age - seems now the perfect time to have seen the direction in which modern society was going: this remember, was before computers were even mentioned as a possible future technology. Whoever it was, either Fritz Lang or author Thea Von Harbou who first thought the idea that machines would not serve man, but the other way round, they were on to something. It's probably the first film to portray the future as something to be feared, a blueprint by which so many futuristic films have since copied, that it's somehow impossible not to think of it any other way (the film is set in the year 2000, which was not quite so sleek or as foreboding as foretold - although we're catching up, if Blade Runner's depiction of an ethnic run-down Los Angeles is anything to go by.)

The creation of the robot Maria was a strong influence for Bride of Frankenstein

Paradoxically, it is at one of the oldest houses in the ancient city where the most modernistic invention is created. The metal robot - which is only seen for a few short minutes in the film but is nonetheless an iconic image - is fashioned by Rotwang as a Svengali-like creation intended to replace Fredersen's lost love Hel (who is eulogised in a huge memorial bust), and whom for some reason the mad Rotwang had some sort of emotional attachment. The comparatively saner Fredersen however is freaked out at the thought of a replica of his wife walking around, and instructs Rotwang instead to model the robot's human exterior on the saintly Maria, intending to incite the workers to revolt, so that they can be knocked back down to size.

There's a certain amount of symbiosis with the success of Frankenstein here: in both cases the story involves the creation of an artificial being, and also in both cases the phenomenon of the idea became greater than the original story itself; various newer, re-styled versions of Metropolis have shown up in the subsequent decades, each one of them a reflection of the modern times in which they were re-presented.

In 1984 most notably (the Orwellian significance of the year was appropriate), a severely shortened and tinted version was presented with background music by Giorgio Moroder, and seemed to speak more to the 1980's than future times or the time in which it was made. Various other truncated versions of the film have knocked around, with varying degrees of musical accompaniment. I even put together one myself, combining elements of Schubert's Ave Maria (obvious but effective) and Trevor Jones's score for the Metropolis-influenced sci-fi thriller Dark City(qv), which matches up very well with the images. Anyone who has an interest in background music in films should try doing a score for Metropolis, as the images are so easy and dramatic to set to music.

The actual original score (by Gottfreid Huppertz and Bernd Schultheis) is by way of contrast, much more a score of its time, in the grand silent movie orchestral tradition - and as such reminds one that Metropolis is really a contemporary statement on the class struggle, with the rich and affluent not exactly slave merchants to the machine workers, but certainly unaware of their toil. Lang's later fellow masterwork M covered the social problem in more complex fashion - again, on another still topical subject: child killers and our attitudes towards them.

The finale of Metropolis, for all its fantastic futurism, is little to do with special effects and everything to do with human melodrama, as Maria is abducted by Rotwang, and Freder pursues them to the top of the cathedral tower (a finale later used in Tim Burton's Batman) to the horror of his repentant father Joh. The eventual (supposed) reconciliation between workers and bosses, "the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart" - a message rammed home incessantly from the beginning - has a very Communist feel to it. Curiously, one of Metropolis's biggest admirers at the time was the ultimate fascist, Adolf Hitler.

Metropolis is not only a great sci-fi film, but in its longer original 152 minute form, now mostly restored, one can also see the philosophical and political ideas that were at work. In either form, either as period piece or as heavily reworked futuristic fantasy, it is still a work that adapts to both times brilliantly. Perhaps not Lang's best film (and that's saying something), but certainly his most famous, and most lavish.

See also this excellent account on the new restored version.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Dead of Night (1945)

For Halloween, an English chiller par excellence is a suitable choice.

Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is invited for the weekend to the country farmhouse of Eliot Foley (Roland Culver). But as he drives along to the farm, something odd disturbs Craig as he drives up and stops his car, something strangely familiar about the place, as if from a dream, which he finds himself gradually recollecting.

As he steps in, there's something oddly familiar about the other guests too: not only that, but they've also had their own dealings with the supernatural: racing driver Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird) who has seen a creepy hearse driver (Miles Malleson) who turns up again on a bus that is about to crash. There's also Mrs Joan Courtland (Googie Withers) whose blissful married life is suddenly threatened by a sinister mirror which drives her husband (Ralph Michael) to murder. Even sceptics like Foley himself (who tells the one humorous segment of "Ealing comedy" involving Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), young Sally O'Hara (Sally Ann Howes), and most notably, the pragmatic Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), all have their strange tales to tell.

Thus began, in its now well-trodden form, the multi-ghost story compendium, which seems to suit horror and in particular British horror very well, where few of them are particularly long (or have any need to be), so Dead of Night is the ideal transposition of these chilling tales, and though Ealing were rightly famous for their comedies, they could turn their hands to other genres with equal skill, as this compelling film very ably demonstrates. Indeed if anything, there is a vein of wry conversational humour to the linking sequences in the farmhouse that helps to emphasize the horror even more.

Van Straaten's tale is the most remembered of the lot, and also the most imitated; it's perhaps not so terrifying, indeed even comical nowadays, to see a ventroliquist's dummy take over its owner. However, Michael Redgrave's demented Maxwell Frere (with his dummy, "Hugo") is a case of the film's main star in a relatively brief but startling role, and one that certainly grabs the most attention.

The nightmare reaches its zenith for Walter Craig, as Hugo strangles him.

But even more chilling for me however is the climactic linking sequence, where the whole stately set-up suddenly spirals into nightmare, and allows Basil Dearden (chief of the film's four fine directors) and Ealing to be experimental and highly avant garde.

Many film makers have mimicked this style of portmanteau horror, but the wrap-arounds are often tame and perfunctory, and none of them have Dead of Night's force - which makes itself felt even on the end credits, where...

...Walter Craig is invited for the weekend to the country farmhouse of Eliot Foley, but as he drives along to the farm, something odd disturbs Craig as he drives up and stops his car, something strangely familiar about the place.....

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Village (2004)

Back in 1999 when one blockbuster followed another with a variable degree of intelligence and a greater amount of special effects, along came an old-fashioned ghost story called The Sixth Sense, which dared to keep the camera still, the soundtrack quiet, and to let the audience in on the experience (even though it also cast macho Bruce Willis as a sleepy-looking psychologist to precocious Hayley Joel Osment.)

The Sixth Sense was followed by Unbreakable (again with Willis) and Signs, with Mel Gibson this time as the macho hero for whom widowhood has made him lose the faith that he regains when fear strikes the world at the sight of alien invasion on every TV channel (an allegory for September 11th). Also cast as Gibson's brother was Joachim Phoenix, for whom M. Night Shyamalan specifically wrote his next project, the unusual setting on this occasion being a remote village in the 19th century, where a fragile but happy existence is enjoyed by the community in spite of the growing threat of murderous creatures in the woods.

Things turn awry however when quiet, introverted but courageous Lucius Hunt (Phoenix) dares to walk the line into the woods - and the domain of the creatures - and both he and the villagers suffer the consequences.

Unusually however, when events in the story take an unexpected turn, it is not Lucius but his prospective fiancee Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) - who has quietly slipped into the film one third of the way through - who takes up the challenge to go beyond the woods into the towns to get help. Ivy, blind since childhood, is ironically the best qualified for such a quest, for being intuitively able to sense things that others cannot, her blindness being her strength as well as her handicap - and helping also to heighten the suspense and terror in the audience.

The Village is one of the few cases where I have sat in the cinema and audiences have literally screamed aloud, a testament to the suspense and atmosphere created by Shyamalan, not only from the threat of the creatures but also the beautifully conveyed scenery and sense of community (the wedding barn dance strongly reminisces Heaven's Gate), thanks also to a superb supporting cast - the best of all Shyamalan's films - that includes William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, and in an offbeat diversion from his Oscar-winning The Pianist, Adrien Brody - as the village idiot, who like Ivy, is a lot smarter than he looks.

In spite of its beautiful construction and taut suspense, a certain amount of critical backlash has - unfairly in my view - been accorded The Village. Trailers for the film misleadingly emphasised most of the horror aspects, and some audiences expecting a ghostly shocker on the lines of The Sixth Sense were rather disappointed to find an elegiac suspenseful romantic drama instead. The characteristic final twist in the tale is (as with most of Shyamalan's work) quite guessable, but does not in any way diminish from the tension or the atmosphere. If anything, it serves to strengthen the resolve of the village elders, and speaks a great deal about the spiritual dedication of their cause.

Many of M. Night Shyamalan's films have a haunting spiritual undertone, drawn from his upbringing (from India but raised in America) and though his recent work seems to have withered and turned pretentious in the eyes of many, The Village is one of his best works, on all counts.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Cornucopia (2001)

For the 50th of these 100 films, I'll crave a one and only indulgence, not because this is a film made by myself, but more that the history of film and indeed the history of the Millennium deserved some sort of celebration, which had not been satisfactorily covered by the cinema - a common expression among filmgoers or filmmakers is "the film I would have made" - well, this is the film I did make.

The Millennium as an event seemed to come and go; much emphasis and fear was placed on the so-called "Millennium Bug" when 1999 ticked round to 2000, and in this country much scorn and finance was poured on the new Millennium Dome in North Greenwich - yet disappointingly little attention was paid to the history of the two thousand years of Christianity, in particular the 20th century. With the end of the 1990s rapidly approaching, I already had it in mind to compile some of my existing video footage into an end of the era celebration combined with key events and places of the 20th century. For this, I was also greatly assisted by my sister Catherine who provided an original score, the aim being to make (musically speaking) a modern perspective on events from the past as seen from the future, and vice versa - using Beethoven and others for the more universal themes of triumph and loss.

A documentary can be one of the driest and dreariest forms of entertainment, dependent a great deal on the interest of its subject matter for most of its entertainment. To this end, I didn't want to make a film stuffed with facts and narration. I was captivated by the semi-poetic documentaries of Humphrey Jennings, as well as other visually dynamic films like Man with a Movie Camera and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (which is homaged), to create not so much a documentary as a "visual symphony" of a film, incorporating not only the history of the times but also the three basic elements: earth, wind and fire - or to put it another way - the Rain, the Wind and the Sun.

Part I begins in early winter with the Rain (and snow) as a waking motif (just as the first sight of rain for Bambi was a defining moment), set to the beautiful "Aquarium" theme from Sain Saens' The Carnival of the Animals. Coastal tides are also a key visual metaphor - the tide of time, if you will.

Another influence was D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, from which instead of a rocking cradle I used the motif of a spinning bicycle wheel (its conclusion appropriately at the London Eye) - which moves the film on to the early part of the 20th century, and the continuing influence of technology which has fashioned the way we live now, beginning with factories and railways in the Industrial Age. This surge in machinery and ambition found its epitome in the RMS Titanic, for which, accompanied by a voiceover (by my father John) describing the tonnage of the ship when first launched and the fatal arrogance of its "unsinkability", the film poignantly visits some of the graves and memorials in Southampton to the Titanic disaster, including the actual spot where the ship first set sail on her maiden voyage.

This was 1912, just two years before the start of the First World War, a suitable cue for the Wind to herald the first hurricane of armed conflict - a war that came to dominate most of the 20th century, with the wreckage of WWI spilling over into World War II in 1939.

In between comes the realm of the golden age of the cinema, when the silents became talkies, a particular pivotal moment when some of the greatest silent films were being made - in what would prove to be its last hurrah - soon to be replaced by sound and an even greater, more far-reaching resurgence of spectacle with the musical, and the adventure epic (such as Captain Blood - right), and visiting the lovely Electric Palace in Harwich as a lasting monument to the era.

After the jollity of going to the pictures, the mood shifts again to the more sinister parallel rise of fascism in the 1930's, and the country where it found its most pivotal advocate: Germany. Visiting one of the few remnants of the Nazi era still left in Berlin (the Olympic stadium designed by Albert Speer), and dwelling only fleetingly on the Nazi influence, the clearer perspective comes across the sea in England, where Winston Churchill makes his opening speech as Prime Minister, as the inevitable tide of World War II rushes in.

If ever there was an adaptation of William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, in my mind's eye I imagined a bravura sequence where Hitler's speeches were intercut with the raging of tanks and planes through Europe, set to the music of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. The sequence culminates with the subsequent Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, that proved to be the key moment in the Second World War: the enforced entry of America into the conflict. The rest, as they say, is violent history, and glossing over some of the further anguish and destruction of battle through the rest of the war, the film jumps forward to Churchill's announcement of the German surrender in 1945.

Such a conflict however could not go without mention of the Holocaust. Out of artistic principle I refused to show horrific images of bodies left for dead in the camps, as they are all too familiar and distressing nowadays, rather to show the horrified reactions of those who witnessed the atrocities at Buchenwald, set to the sorrowful music of Beeethoven's Miserere from Missa Solemnis. I visited Buchenwald in the autumn of 1999, on a breezy October morning, yet on the actual concentration camp site itself, there was an eerie stillness about it.

Bringing some relief from all the warfare, I feature at this point some of the earliest family video footage of sentimental nostalgia value, before pushing on to the Sun (and Britain's would-be "solar eclipse" in 1999), and the fiery Atomic age, and with it the Cold War (so ironically named) at the turn of the 1960's. Going to Berlin on the eve of the Millennium was a useful opportunity to see the Berlin wall (now a memorial art gallery) and the town hall in West Berlin where John F. Kennedy made his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, speaking out from the free world to the Communist one. Kennedy's words still resonate 26 years later, when the Wall was finally broken and the East Germans were freely allowed to reunite with their loved ones in the West.

Cornucopia was finished editing and partial dubbing by April of 2002, at which point the Queen Mother died at the age of 101, and I'd already made the film to culminate with a photo montage of her through the years. It was a suitable tribute to someone whose life had literally spanned the century.

This film was a cathartic labour of love, from both a personal and a global perspective, about how time has fashioned the world around us, and one that I knew if it had to be done at all, it had to be done right. I claim no great filmmaking skills in depicting the drama, as the historical events were dramatic enough themselves. Intending originally for it to be made at the end of 1999, such a task was not possible, so I had to contend with finishing it at the beginning of the 21st century, which was perhaps appropriate as it acted as an ushering-in of the new millennium.

I also chose purposely to by-pass the most significant event of 2001 (the September 11th terrorist attacks), when that was really the first major moment of the 21st century. One can still reflect how that day was very much influenced by the lessons and experiences of the 20th century, and will for a long time to come.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Train (1964)

It's 65 years since the end of the World War II, and yet as a nation the British are still complacent about the fact, having never actually suffered the indignity of enemy occupation. Across the Channel things were rather different. There haven't been that many English language films about France's torrid 4 years of grudging subservience to their most despised enemy; on television there was the 1970's drama Secret Army (later parodied in the phenomenally successful 'Allo 'Allo.) On French shores Marcel Ophuls' epic documentary The Sorrow and the Pity covered several aspects of the German occupation in fascinating detail, but for me the most potent depiction of the German occupation is undoubtedly John Frankenheimer's The Train.

The setting is occupied Paris, 1944, not long after D-Day, with the city on the verge of being liberated and the German army getting ready to cut and run. The film, based on a true story, was made in the groundbreaking 1960's when Frankenheimer especially was on a roll after a string of marvellously atmospheric black and white thrillers, beginning his association with Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May, then moving on to The Manchurian Candidate, one of the most terrifying political thrillers ever made.

Frankenheimer boarded The Train late, after Arthur Penn had been fired after one week for making a film that was supposedly dwelling too much on the power of art to compel ordinary people to fight, and Lancaster, fearful that he was making another international flop (after Visconti's The Leopard) brought in Frankenheimer, whose bold style immediately makes itself felt from the moment when German soldiers blunder into the Jeu de Pomme Museum to steal the works of Degas, Cezanne, Brach, etc., for what becomes in effect a railway thriller of cat-and-mouse, between Lancaster's railway controller Labiche and the magnetic, obsessed Colonel Von Waldheim, a riveting performance by Paul Scofield who embodies all the qualities of Arthur Penn's original synopsis.

Though these men know little about art, they're already hooked.

Lancaster and Scofield make for a fascinating clash of athlete versus aesthete, of brawn versus brains, with Burt energetically throwing himself into the action in nearly all his own stunts, including one bravura sequence where jumps onto the art train being driven (by French veteran Michel Simon) through an air raid on the Vaires rail depot, which within minutes is spectacularly blown apart in one of several eye-boggling full-scale action sequences, with the filmmakers given unprecedented access by the SNCF to blow up whole sections of their rail network - which were due for redevelopment anyway.
Another example is at Rive Reine station (as played by Acquigny station) where the French railwaymen engineer the art train to go roaming round in a loop and ram into a previously derailed engine, and then in turn is rammed by another engine from behind. The resulting carnage comes, inevitably, at a high price, to both humans and trains, but the engines are the stars in their self-destructive final blaze of glory.

And all for what? As Lancaster's Labiche explains to sympathetic hotel owner Christine (Jeanne Moreau): "the national heritage, the pride of France. Crazy, isn't it?" The most ingenious, and I suspect, true to life aspect of the film is the effort to which the vigilant French railway workers cover their tracks to deceive the Germans into thinking they are travelling home when they are being detoured instead round Paris.

The final killer blow for Waldheim comes when the nearly exhausted Labiche is left on his own - with most of his railway friends killed - and unscrews a few nuts and bolts from one of the rails, sufficient to derail the art train with no hope of salvage, as the German army is in rapid retreat from the approaching Allies.

The end is as magnanimous and starkly anti-war as anything you'll see, as Labiche shoots the colonel, discards his rifle, and hobbles away leaving the train, all the masterpieces, and several dead heroes lying with them. The film closes with a brilliant last note from Maurice Jarre (who composes a poignant, nostalgic score in honour of his fellow Frenchmen) as the United Artists logo appears.

It is that last note that stays with me most in the memory. That, and the sight of Burt Lancaster climbing down a stepladder from the signal box without using his feet.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Sequels rarely seem anything more than run-of-the-mill or tame, continuing a successful formula without a tremendous amount of variation. Nigel Kneale however, could hardly be described as a run-of-the-mill writer; his Quatermass TV series had chilled BBC audiences with its documentary-style integrity in relating the most seemingly fantastic events involving aliens from other worlds, but right here on British soil.

It began in 1953 with The Quatermass Experiment, about a rocket that had returned to Earth from outer space with its crew horribly affected by an alien virus; then in Quatermass 2 (a rare instance of a "numbered" sequel long before the fashion for them in the 1970's), the alien invasion had spread to Earth of its own accord with an experimental moon base (filmed at Canvey Island - right) used as the nestling ground for a lifeforce secretly infecting everyone around it.

Come the time of the third series, Kneale felt he had to top himself even further, and did not disappoint, by having the aliens (possibly Martians) not just coming to Earth, but having already been here for millions of years - as Man's intelligent ancestors. The "Exclusive" film studio had adapted the first two series in two economical but gripping 80-minute feature films directed by Val Guest and starring the erstwhile but slightly pedestrian Brian Donlevy in the title role.

Kneale held back on adapting the third series until 1967, by which time the Exclusive studio was now known as Hammer, and had defined itself as the home of lurid, highly successful horror films with a traditionally Gothic edge. There's little doubt that the success of the Quatermass films had helped Hammer to pave the way for its lasting image as the house of horror. Here was a welcome chance to use those same ingredients in a much more cerebral context, as much about ideas as horror, which has always been Nigel Kneale's strength.

Succeeding Val Guest this time was Roy Ward Baker, who brought the same sense of tension and escalating drama that he brought to A Night to Remember - which also featured Scotsman Andrew Keir, who was the ideal cinematic Quatermass.

Every element of Keir's performance hits the right note, right down to little details such as noting the new spelling of Hobbs Lane, after "Hobbs the cricketer" (whilst the old "Hob" was once "a sort of nickname of the devil..."), and despite Keir's own assertion that Roy Ward Baker was a difficult director to work with, what they produced together is still compelling to watch.

Top billing however, is inexplicably not given to him but the splendid James Donald - a familiar stalwart of the silver screen since the 1940's including two classic World War II films, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape. Here Donald brings all his British bearing to equally compelling effect as the paleontologist who uncovers prehistoric human skeletons (unearthed at a wonderfully authentic London Tube station) that form the Missing Link - and, Quatermass realises, much, much more.

Assisting them in uncovering the truth is Barbara Shelley as namesake Barbara Judd, playing the stereotypical 1950's girl in the lab, but an intelligent one, who later also experiences the Martian nightmare of ethnic cleansing.

Skeptical Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) delves into the mysterious "unexploded bomb" that has far more secrets behind it than mere military minds can conceive.

At times, the story doesn't quite work visually in trying to convey nightmarish details such as the mental image "video" of the Martian purges, which looks a little cheap, and the climactic special effects image of the devil over London, I confess, to be a little disappointed by when I first saw it. Of all the horror films unnecessarily being remade at the moment, QATP is one of the few that I would like to see redone in terms of special effects.

But the whole thing wraps up memorably with an apocalyptic climax as London becomes a Martian colony, and hypnotised Londoners begin their chilling blood purge for racial purity - an irony of QATP is that it was conceived in the 1950s, the time of race riots in Britain, but come 1967 the same scenes of panic actually pre-dated the student riots in Paris and Europe of a year later. Admittedly if there are any weaknesses, aside from the daunting technical challenges, it's that the depiction of military and ministerial skepticism seems very one-dimensional, although this was very much representative of Britain's dilemma back in the 1950's - whether to move forward into the future or cling to their war-like ideals after World War II.

The last shot, as Keir's Quatermass soberly walks through the shattered streets, echoes Peter Cushing's Van Helsing's sense of weary accomplishment at the end of Dracula. With the assistance of a larger budget (and the helpful use of MGM-Elstree's derelict set for The Dirty Dozen), Hammer produced what I think is one of their best, most thought-provoking works, definitely comparable with their most famous horrors, and one deserving of its status as a British film classic (I saw it at the National Film Theatre in 2000), a film for which all concerned can be proud.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Jaws (1975)

The Secret of the Blockbuster

In essence, it seems to be the pursuit of the seemingly insurmountable, the Big Obstacle. In Star Wars it was the Death Star; Jurassic Park resurrected the dinosaurs; Harry Potter had to overcome Valdemort and The Lord of the Rings had to reach the mountains of Mordor; E.T. had to find his way back to another planet; Titanic had its iceberg. And Jaws had its killer shark.

"You're gonna need a bigger boat."

Back at school in the 1970's stretching through into the early 80's, the big dare amongst boastful schoolboys was "who's scared of Jaws?" Well I jolly well was, prior to first viewing, discreetly hiding at the back of the bedroom in front of a small black-and-white TV set, to minimise the shocks when they came. I well remember Robert Shaw's grisly demise, and it still puzzles me today how the film got by with a PG certificate.

The anticipation of the shark was scary, but on second or third viewing the fun of the shock was much more enjoyable. This was where the film became such a box office bonanza; audiences came back for more, and recommended those who hadn't already. Who was scared enough not to see it?

The promising newcomer Steven Spielberg was a tender 28 when he took on Peter Benchley's bestseller, and it's the film from which his subsequent lucrative career has blossomed. But as well as being the making of him, it was very nearly the end of him too (as indeed, Star Wars was nearly the end of George Lucas.) Like many filmmakers he and the producers suffered the trials on filming on water, with a specially constructed mechanical shark that soon failed to function as soon as the elaborate circuits were ruined by the effect of seawater.

What Spielberg lacked in on-screen hardware, he more than made up for with suspense, allied with an iconic score by John Williams. The famous two-note motif, much imitated, was the epitome of the film but many other lyrical elements of the score underline the atmosphere and the beauty of the setting (filmed in and around Martha's Vineyard.)

In many ways it's Spielberg's best film because the concealment of the monster's actions (as Hitchcock well knew) makes the horror seem all the greater in the audience's imagination. He also garnered helpful performances out of his three leading actors; at first glance all they had to do was react to the deadly fish swimming around them, but Robert Shaw was never the sort of actor who came second to anything, least of all a shark, and the atmosphere improves immeasurably as soon as he looms onto the screen as the Ahab-like Quint. Richard Dreyfuss also provides a good deal of cherubic postgraduate contrast as younger shark fanatic Hooper, and either side of these two the film is anchored unobtrusively by Roy Scheider as Chief Brody, who holds it all together.

Their interaction is especially effective in the chatty but memorable after-dinner scene on board the "Orca", where the shark veterans brag over each other's experiences, brought to a head by Quint's chilling true story (guest written by John Milius) about the sinking of the USS Minneapolis, and how the sharks ate most of the remaining survivors for lunch.

Other watchable supporting players such as Lorraine Gary as Mrs Brody (who flirts mildly with Hooper at the dinner table), the redoubtable Murray Hamilton as the shifty but well-meaning Mayor of Amity Island, and even Peter Benchley himself as a TV news reporter, all have their moments (and most moving of all is Lee Fierro as a grieving parent), but once things leave dry land it's essentially about these three shark hunters and the thrill and terror of the hunt between Man and beast.

The biggest genius of marketing was the poster

Like generations of cinemagoers avoided showers after the terror of Psycho in 1960, so audiences of the 1970's thought twice before swimming in the sea after Jaws. Many blockbusters have been made, before and since, and relied heavily on packaging as much as the film itself, but Spielberg's monsterpiece is a class apart because it is so well made, as the inferior sequels testify.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Last Action Hero (1993)

There are two moments in Last Action Hero that rather endear me towards it. The first is where Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger - as if you didn't know), who has stepped out of the fictional world into the real one, plays Chicken with his adversary's stolen taxi. Unlike in the movies, the two vehicles collide head-on and are left in the street like wrecks. "Damn it, that hurt!", bemoans Slater as he steps away from the bust vehicle.

It's a brave moment in an action blockbuster, a fragment of truth in a genre that thrives on superficial action fantasy. It's also the sort of movie that's in most people's heads every time they leave the cinema wondering how certain scenes - particularly in the action genre - would stretch credibility in real life.

Similarly, every film fan wonders how their hero would cope in the real world, and that's exactly what happens to precocious but plucky little Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien), who's seen a few too many Jack Slater movies but nonetheless jumps at the chance to see the latest fourth instalment, a sort of semi-fantasy cop movie blend of Lethal Weapon and Death Wish, at the delightfully nostalgic run-down Pandora cinema in New York (actually the Orpheum Theatre in downtown LA) where seedy but lovable old projectionist Nick (Robert Prosky) has a "magic ticket" (given to him in that very theatre by Harry Houdini!), a ticket "that does what it wants to".
Nick has never used the ticket himself (although he yearned to once - Garbo and Jean Harlow were his idols in those days), but Danny, like his action heroes, is much more reckless. As he sits down to watch the test run of Jack Slater IV, the ticket starts to come alive, as a stick of dynamite flies out of the screen onto the aisle of the theatre, and the terrified Danny runs away towards the screen - and into the film.

Thereafter the boundaries of Last Action Hero (as well as Jack Slater IV) are shifted, to good or bad effect, depending I suspect, on your appreciation of the action genre. Soon Danny is lucky enough to be riding in the back of Jack Slater's car in the middle of a car chase, and is therefore perfectly able to interact with the action, and to impart his own expertly garnered film knowledge ("the bad guys are in there"). But then nasty English hitman Benedict (a splendidly obnoxious Charles Dance) briefly abducts Danny and Slater's daughter (the strident Bridgette Wilson - now Bridgette Wilson-Sampras), and more ominously gets his hands on the mysterious magic ticket, from which he is transported back from the film into the real world. Slater and Danny follow, and suddenly the goalposts are changed again, as Jack realises not only that things are a little tougher in real life, but the villains are out to kill someone called Arnold Schwarzenegger. I enjoy this diversion into reality, but for many audiences it was a turn-off.

The other endearing (and prophetic) moment foe me in LAH is when Slater lands in an adventure park lake (full of tar for whatever reason), and a static dinosaur watches over. Maybe it was an intended dig at the makers of Jurassic Park - but the T-Rex had the last word; the advent of CGI revolutionised cinema in Steven Spielberg's film that same summer, and consigned LAH to a very distant second place at the box office that summer. It's also a pivotal moment in cinema history, when live action gradually gave way to computer effects, so in a sense, it was the Last Action Hero film.

Such a fall from grace seemed most improbable to Arnie and his legion of fans. Here for good measure was not only a staple actioner but also a family-oriented film with an all-star supporting cast, including the likes of veterans Anthony Quinn, Art Carney and F. Murray Abraham ("he killed Mozart!"), and loads of guest appearances (including Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick reprising their most famous screen roles.) I hadn't seen many Schwarzenegger films up to that point (the only one I could remember seeing at the cinema was the comedy Twins), but he has undeniable screen presence, from the first bravura moment when he bestrides the roofs of several police cars - you very much get a sense of "The Man".

Of all the three main action stars of that period (along with Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis), Arnold to me has always been the one most self-deprecating, which made him the ideal choice to play the Last Action Hero. Indeed, the role was written ostensibly with him in mind; he knows he isn't the world's answer to acting, and his nickname of the "Austrian Oak" is well chosen for his square-jawed physicality and thick European accent which suited him so well as the monosyllabic Terminator.

His ally in this case was his previous Predator compatriot Jon McTiernan, also a veteran of the action genre, who has always tried to break beyond the boundaries of just basic wall-to-wall action (from which he made his name), with variable results, such as The Hunt for Red October, Medicine Man, and Last Action Hero.

That it failed so much is not just because of Jurassic Park, but also Columbia's overconfidence riding on the coat-tails of Schwarzenegger, as well as I think, a certain lack of control in the balance between fantasy and reality - a little too fantastic for its own good in Jack Slater IV, and a little uncertain about itself in the real world.

In spite of its cleverness and self-mocking, the story never loses sight of the fact that this is Jack Slater's struggle for survival, including his own identity. When he is involved with a shoot-out with The Ripper (Tom Noonan) at the New York Premiere of Jack Slater IV, his mind flashes back briefly to the previous shoot-out when his son was also killed.

The nightmare of the rooftop confrontation of Jack Slater III is reprised, only this time Danny is the hostage. The manner in which he dispatches the Ripper is still a little improbable for the "real" world - but worse is to come for Slater when Benedict re-emerges, having realised that bad guys can (and often do) win, and shoots Slater in the chest.

A curious observer observes the ambulance skidding by along the New York streets - for the magic ticket has acquired another cinematic icon - Death from The Seventh Seal, played not by Bengt Ekerot, but by Sir Ian McKellen (villains with vicious knives seem to be a pre-occupation in this film, first The Ripper, and now Death itself with his scythe.) But He's only come along to watch this particular casualty out of curiosity - Slater's not scheduled to die, because he's a fictional character, and will only disappear from existence when the grosses go down. It's another curiosity in a curious action film - that has no particular big finish, other than to return its man of the movies into the fictional world where he belongs.
Of course, it tried to have its cake and eat it - as Hollywood always does - by trying to sentimentalise whilst at the same time satisfying the genre's lust for action and macho one-liners. This was possibly the other reason for its critical and commercial failure, for trying to be too clever.

Two Schwarzeneggers for the price of one: the "real" one's on the right.

Arnold himself was the most philosophical (and secretly the most wounded) by the film's failure. As he himself said, "the bigger they are, the harder they fall." I still think it's an enjoyable film, that suffered a rough ride from critics and audiences who were expecting something a little less existential than what they got. I particularly like its enthusiasm for Big Screen Cinema, and how the scenario throws up so teasingly the possibilities of bringing so many movie characters into the real world: imagine Darth Vader escaping from his cinematic intergalactic confines to strike back for the Empire in this galaxy as well as his own; or Hannibal Lector having even more fun in the real world than he ever had in his own lurid movies.

Who knows, had Last Action Hero it been the success he was hoping, Mr. Schwarzenegger would still be a full-time movie star now and not the Governor of California.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films