Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Tom & Jerry: The Cat Concerto (1947) and others

As much as Laurel and Hardy were inseparable, immortal cinema icons, so too were Tom and Jerry.

To the average viewer this pair might be associated more with TV than film (even though TV has often had its censorship problems with its perceived racist stereotyping and cartoon "violence"), but the cinema was where they started, and therefore very much where they deserve to be in this collection.

Essentially the David and Goliath scenario taken to highly comedic lengths, Warner Brothers had Tweetie Pie and Sylvester (who was originally named "Thomas"), but the top studio of the time, MGM, had the best of the bunch. Their first cartoon short, Puss Gets the Boot, ironically named the cat as "Jasper" - whether the moniker "Tom and Jerry" had anything to do with the nickname for the British and the German armies is speculative, but the duo certainly hit it off as the best of enemies, and the item that brought them the most acclaim, deservedly, was The Cat Concerto.

An all-musical piece (using for the most part, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C Sharp Minor, skilfully played by musical director Scott Bradley) in the style of Disney's Silly Symphonies, Hanna and Barbera go one better by staging it with all the pompous formality of the concert hall. By a coincidence there was also a Bugs Bunny cartoon made simultaneously (which led to lawsuits and counter-suits between the two studios), Rhapsody Rabbit, which doesn't really cut the mustard as well as this masterpiece.

What fits in so perfectly with Tom & Jerry's style is the complete absence of dialogue between the characters, allowing the music almost totally to choreograph the gags, and all within the enclosed setting of the piano and its players. The plot is quintessential T&J: the cat has fun playing around with his prey, until the mouse strikes back. Various comic mayhem ensues, until the final battle, with the little guy (unlike in real life) usually coming out on top.

It's possibly fair to say that Morecambe and Wise found their comedic inspiration for their classic TV spot with Andre Previn from The Cat Concerto. I can also understand how future classical musicians would have first become aware of classical music through this cartoon.

It was the second Tom & Jerry cartoon to receive an Oscar (after Yankee Doodle Mouse), and was to be followed by Tom and Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl, which arguably topped The Cat Concerto by hilariously staging Johann Strauss's overture to Die Fledermaus - in it's entirety, without the interruption of "modern" music that briefly slips in to TCC. A third Oscar winner for Hanna and Barbera (and their supervising producer Fred Quimby) was Johann Mouse (1952), yet another classical music entry, completing a memorable classical trilogy, of sorts.

Of the others, Quiet Please! is a personal favourite, featuring that other great adversary of Tom's (and Jerry's secret weapon!), Spike the dog, forever plagued by the cat's chasing around, and usually grumpy enough to take it out on poor old Tom once pushed too far. The Little Orphan is a delightful little item celebrating Thanksgiving, with a scene-stealing feisty little mouse named "Tufty" (in later incarnations) who despite his size has the appetite of a hippo, and gets into plenty of trouble for it.

DR. JEKYLL AND MR. MOUSE. Tom's attempts to turn demonic and savage have unfortunate side effects!

Finally there is the seasonal delight Night Before Christmas, in which Jerry is chucked out into the snow, but a remorseful Tom lets him back in to warm up in front of the fire. The resulting final gag with a mousetrap is a sheer joy.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Olympischespiele (1938)

Or Olympia as it would prefer itself to be known to English-speaking nations. In many ways a pivotal film of history but also the model by which sports films have been made since, and also by which many Olympic ceremonies have since been performed, including the 2012 London Olympics.

History (and prudence) prevents Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will from being given any greater celebration from me than it deserves in this 100 list, but her epic 2-part film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics is another matter - much more than just a record of a sporting event, and while it reveals its political influence throughout (Adolf Hitler is an occasional supporting player watching from the VIP box), the approach is subtler. As a film it treats sport as drama, and is all the more exciting for it.

It's easy to see why Riefenstahl was so revered by Hitler and the others. Her name had been made on the filming of various Teutonic legends such as The Blue Light, fantasies which embodied the ideals that the Nazis loved to espouse. Her interest was less in the Aryan supremacy over other nations per se, but moreover the beauty of the human body; endless close-up and slow motion shots (staged as well as filmed at the event) focus not on the achievements of the athletes, but on the grace and balletic quality of their muscles.

And in one particular supreme athlete, Riefenstahl was particularly besotted with the grace and beauty of the great Jesse Owens. Not surprisingly, her major opponent both artistically and politically in this respect, was Dr. Josef Goebbels, who had his own ideas about how to make films.

Successive polls over the decades have usually accorded Muhammad Ali with the title of greatest sportsman of the century, but Owens' achievement for me is so much more significant. His winning of four gold medals in Berlin was a phenomenal achievement, even by today's standards in a "normal" Olympics. It is thanks also to Leni Riefenstahl, that his story can be retold and remembered.

I visited the Olympic stadium in 1999, still remarkably intact from Albert Speer's fine original design. Although certain elements such as the Olympic bell were removed (barely) of swastikas and the names of certain prominent Nazis were removed from the Olympic Hall of Fame (below), the area is the one conspicuous remnant of the Nazi regime, partly because it was from the one time when the Nazis chose (for prudence's sake) to be more international and egalitarian in their attitudes.

There's no getting away from the fact that the Olympics have been - particularly since Berlin in 1936 - a PR circus for the nation hosting the event, and their rulers. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were very much a part of Reagan's America; the preceding Olympics in Moscow (boycotted by the US because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) and then again in China in 2008, were a celebration of Communism, and like it or not, the 2012 London Olympics will be celebrating the Conservative Coalition (though instigated by Tony Blair and the Conservative Lord Coe.) In the "Nazi Olympics" of 1936, the hosts - like all others - put aside their political differences to celebrate (hypocritically perhaps) the Olympic ideal. But only for the two weeks.

Once the Olympic fortnight had finished, and by the time the film was released in 1938, the party was over. Within a year the world would be at war again, and that same host nation that welcomed all those countries was planning to overrun them.

But the film still manages to transcend politics,  and that is mainly due to the photographic skills of Leni Riefenstahl, and the heroics of Jesse Owens.

The Olympic stadium in Berlin, 1999

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Psycho (1960)

In trepidation of my first viewing on TV of Psycho, I hid in the kitchen for the key moment of the shower scene. Cowardy custard.

Audiences of 1960 were not so fortunate.

In all his six decades of filmmaking, and for what in most of that time has generally been considered his masterwork portfolio of cinematic craft, Alfred Hitchcock is best remembered for this shocker - one of his cheaper efforts - but how rightly so. Psycho is probably not nowadays the most terrifying film ever made - time and the outside world have hardened people's resolve so much - but it still has the most terrifying music score.

From the time of the credits to the time of the shower scene, that score by Bernard Herrmann is always brimming away in the background, making you aware, particularly during the long car journey, that something is going to happen at the end of this...

It must have been bizarre to be asked to come and see a film which could only be watched from the beginning or not at all - this in the days when roving film shows allowed paying audiences to enter the cinema whenever they liked, hence the expression "this is where we came in". Added to that, there is the added tease of a plot involving stolen money from a Texas office, rashly entrusted into the hands of feisty Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who could use that $40,000 very nicely thank you, for her potential nuptials with illicit boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin).

Guilt-ridden along the long drive out of Arizona however, an almost judgmental shower (ah, the metaphor is appropriate) falls down and she takes refuge at an out-of-the-way hostel called The Bates Motel. After a little friendly talk with the young and slightly repressed owner's son Norman, Marion decides to take back the $40,000, and then have a shower...

For whatever reason - perhaps because it was deemed too shocking even for Hitchcock - the responsibility for directing the shower scene has sometimes been credited to Saul Bass. It brings into question who actually is the maker of a film? Bass's storyboards (together with his nifty title sequences that were his stock-in-trade) were used by Hitch as the blueprint for all the murder scenes, and Hitch, grateful for Bass's visual input, invited Bass onto the set (right) and gave him the generous credit "Pictorial Consultant" that started the whole controversy over 'directing' the shower scene.

As great as the shock of a vicious murder taking place before our very (perceived) eyes, is the still unparallelled shock in movie history of a story losing its central character, as well as the sub-plot that goes with her too (although the credits drop the hint with the "and Janet Leigh" at the beginning).

From that moment on, you feel anything could happen. Once the situation is set up, and the rules of storytelling defiantly broken, the Master draws you in.

A particular fine example of his craft is the long staircase tracking shot, following the mysterious Norman as he chats with Mother and drags her down to the basement, Hitch teasing the audience but knowing that they, like he, don't want to get too close to this strange family. It is the quintessential suspense of the slightly open door.

Far more shocking for me, on reflection, than the stabbing of Marion is the horrific death of the intrepid investigator Arbogast (Martin Balsam), thus breaking another rule of story telling: you don't kill off your detective before he's finished detecting! Balsam is the figure of integrity,  the one who's going to sort things out for us. It was also a death that, unlike Marion's, I wasn't expecting. Once he's gone, you don't really envy anyone who tries to go into that house.

How could Hitch have known what it would lead to? A whole spate of slasher shockers in the decades to come, including three deteriorating sequels, and most curious of all, a 1999 Gus Van Sant remake using exactly the same script, a curious case of cinematic plagiarism (or as Van Sant put, his "cover version" of a classic), whose lack of success proved that you cannot make a film any better than that already made by a master filmmaker.

One figure at the end, however, leaves audiences in no doubt that this is far from a laughing matter: that final creepy shot of Anthony Perkins is still difficult to watch without severe trepidation - even more than the shower scene - when that last sinister face reveals itself at the end of the film.

I experienced (there's no better word for it) Psycho in the cinema for the first time at long last, at the Prince Charles Cinema on a Halloween horror themed weekend (time had sanitized the horror down from X certificate to 15), of which the greatest impression felt was the sound: significantly higher on the soundtrack than usual, with Herrmann's score screeching out. Come the time of the shower scene, I was less afraid of being scared than of being deafened. At least then I was able to get some idea of what original audiences of the time went through.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Spiderman (2002)

This one's a late addition to the list, but I have to include it for all sorts of sentimental reasons. The first reason, among others, is because it was one of the last genuinely enjoyable comic book films that I saw at the old Odeon Colchester, incorporating the best elements of both Superman and Batman (whose composer Danny Elfman provides an evocative score), and its nostalgia for New York is poignant (more of this later.) It also has one of the sexiest screen kisses in cinema history.

At the turn of the 21st century, there had been much mooted plans (as there usually are with most comic strip films nowadays) to make a new film version of the popular Spider-Man series. Up until then the character had been half-heartedly adapted for American television (and perhaps more entertainingly in a cartoon series with a catchy theme in the 1960's), but with the release in the 1970's of Superman followed a decade later by Batman, it was probably only a matter of time before Marvel's counterpart to these two icons spun his way onto the big screen proper.

When the time did come, the choice of director was unusual, but ultimately ideal. Sam Raimi had groomed his cinematic career on low-budget, high-octane zombie horror such as the Evil Dead series, followed by the violent comic book avenger Darkman (starring Liam Neeson), which, as well as dipping into the mainstream also opened the eyes of Columbia studio executives who were considering possible directors for their new Spider-Man epic.

Raimi's own enthusiasm for the original comic books helped a great deal, and his cast were near-perfect: Tobey Maguire, already an established name from acclaimed films such as Wonder Boys and The Cider House Rules, pipped contenders such as Jake Gyllenhaal for the coveted title role, and brought as fine a definition of Peter Parker as Mark Hamill brought to Luke Skywalker and Cheristopher Reeve brought to Superman. Kirsten Dunset was another "young veteran" (playing a centuries old vampire opposite Tom Cruise at the age of 12), with the perfect girl next door persona to play Mary-Jane Watson. Added to them on the other side of the coin were Willem Dafoe as egomaniac villain Norman Osborne (aka. The Green Goblin), and James Franco as his son Harry, one of the best of the new generation of young actors. If Dafoe overplays a little (though not quite in the Jack Nicholson mode), both he and Dunst are ultimately constricted by their roles.

The rest of the cast were also exemplary, borrowing heavily from Superman in style with J.K. Simmons' hack newspaper editor echoing Perry White, and Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson playing Peter's aunt and uncle with all the integrity of Ma and Pa Kent. To add the fun, Raimi brought in his Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell to play a bit part (who announces the title character's name for the first time.) Even co-creator of the comics himself, Stan Lee, makes an appearance (his first of many in the Marvel series).

The other major co-star of Spiderman however, and the touchstone of the film's lasting appeal, is its sentimental and heart-rendering depiction of New York: less of a modernistic, materialistic metropolis here, more of a kinder, community-based city that grew out of these hopes and desires. The timing of the film's release was fateful indeed: in the course of post-production during 2001, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre (between which one major sequence was filmed), were engulfed in the awful terrorist bombing of 9/11 - an expression which I frankly loathe as an abrupt text message style name, written by and for the low attention span modern era.

The impact of the atrocity nonetheless, and the spirit of the city that emerged through it, are imbued throughout Spiderman, such as the moving scene where firemen (who so valiantly laid down their lives for others on September 11th) try to rescue a child from an apartment block where Spidey helps out. Raimi and his collaborators developed this theme further in SPIDER-MAN 2, where a speeding subway train propelled by the evil Dr. Octopus (an excellent Alfred Molina) is stopped in its tracks by the wounded young hero, for whom the New Yorkers inside the train gratefully carry him above them Christ-like having just survived the ordeal. Spider-Man 2 was an accomplished and in some ways improved sequel, that developed the ideas of the first film and also complimented them in a similar vein to The Empire Strikes Back.

Less so for Spider-Man 3 however, a nonetheless honourable effort, but for whom the studio insisted that Raimi include a third, unnecessary villain (in addition to the Sandman and the now ascendant Green Goblin Harry Osborne) in the shape of Venom, the most popular villain from the comics. For this reason as much as any other, inexplicably within a very short space of time Columbia chose to "reboot" Spiderman all over again, with a new director, new stars, and presumably newer, "better" CGI - when in truth the story had been pretty well covered the first time.

Time I think, will be kinder to Spider-Man however. Other revisionist comic book films have since been made trying to incorporate modern war-on-terror anxieties, but posterity will remember Sam Raimi's heartening rendition for putting all (or most) of the right ingredients together, and for providing an invaluable record of the zeitgeist of - yes, I'll say it - 9/11.

Monday, 23 April 2012

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

It sometimes shocks me to discover that there are those erstwhile filmgoers who do not know of Errol Flynn. I daresay in the generations to come, film audiences will similarly be saying "Harrison who?", or wonder how on Earth anybody could possibly become a movie star with names like Leonardo DiCaprio or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Well, Errol Flynn was every bit as great as these and more. From Tasmanian upbringing (legend has it that he stowed away) to brief work in early British sound films, his rogue beauty buccaneered its way into Hollywood in some obscure roles before Warner Brothers took the bold move of casting him as Captain Blood (in place of original choice Fredric March) alongside 18-year old Olivia De Havilland (right), in an exciting, rousing swashbuckler directed by Michael Curtiz with a notable duel with suave Basil Rathbone as a slimy rival pirate: the legend of Errol Flynn was born.

I myself first heard of him only by association, from a college lecturer who was travelling with me to Nottingham to visit relatives, and we spoke of the area of Sherwood, and he invoked the named of Errol Flynn. The name was passed on wisely.

Flynn's portrayal is still the definitive Sir Robin of Locksley, surpassing all the other notable Robins such as Richard Greene, Richard Todd, Sean Connery, Michael Praed, Jason Connery, Kevin Costner, and now Russell Crowe. Even Flynn's great predecessor Douglas Fairbanks, the greatest of all silent stars, whose Robin Hood in 1922 was considered unsurpassable, doesn't quite come up to Flynn's matchless charm.

Perhaps the timing of the film was its crucial asset. In the 1930s, Warner Brothers had already come to grips with the sinister rise of fascism across the Atlantic in Europe. The notably titled Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) dared to speak out against a regime that America was not yet at war with. As for The Adventures of Robin Hood, the timing was apposite, and Warners made sure that Errol Flynn's Robin embodied all the heroism of a just cause. Somehow this evergreen depiction of Sherwood all makes sense: the myth, the heroism, the history. And it also had timely statements to make about the struggle against the Nazis.

Significantly to point up the threat, Warners made Robin's opponents a veritable tripartite of deceitful villainy: the scheming, vindictive Prince John (Claude Rains), the corruptible Bishop of the Black Canons (Montagu Love), and never to be outdone by those two, the one and only Basil Rathbone, as Sir Guy of Gisbourne - NOT The Sheriff of Nottingham as sometimes mistaken (who was played endearingly by Melville Cooper, and later portrayed in rumbustious fashion by Alan Rickman in 1991.) The formidable opposition meet their match however in a superb cast of Merrie Men: Alan Hale as a marvellously confident Little John (his second of three portrayals spanning 28 years), the seasoned veteran Eugene Pallette as the lugubrious, passionate Friar Tuck, and ultimately their trump card: their crusading king, Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter).

Having been lured into Sherwood Forest with their illustrious booty to pay for the taxes plundered by the merry men, the terrible trio soon have retribution in mind with a sinister plan to lure Robin into a trap, by staging a stirring archery tournament, scored in gloriously operatic fashion by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. John Williams and Star Wars owes a great debt to Korngold for the exciting, multi-setting finale encompassing all the different characters' exploits.

William Keighley's beautifully evocative Sherwood Forest (shot in beautiful leafy Pasadena) scenes were deemed to be slowing up the action, and so Warners called upon another trusted master of the action spectacular, Michael Curtiz (who later went on to direct Casablanca) to crank up the action, as the villains take an iron grip on proceedings and imprison Marian, and then treacherously threaten to murder the returning King Richard. It all leads to a stirring finale (another influence for Star Wars and other adventure epics), and one of the best screen duels ever, between Robin and Gisbourne.

Of all the Robin Hoods ever told - and there have been countless versions on stage, screen, television, and even by minstrel - Flynn was the quintessence of the rebellious hero, and Robin Hood was his greatest showcase, and with good reason.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films