Villain (1971)

May 1, 2009

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“I don’t want a fertile imagination, I don’t want to know if society’s to blame, I just want to catch criminals”

The film opens with two heavies waiting in a London flat, as a car pulls up in the street below they wake Burton giving him time to wash his face and compose himself.  As he does so, the owner of the flat returns and they hold  him captive.  Fresh and alert, Burton enters the room and- with barely a word- begins to deliver a vicious beating and then takes out a cut-throat razor.  Our next sight of the victim is when Burton looks up from beside a drip of blood (having made a crass joke about pigeon droppings) and sees him tied to a chair hanging from a window horrifically lacerated.  On the other hand our next view of Burton sees him after he returns home and gently wakes his Mum with a cup of tea and offers to take her for a ride out to the coast.  Now THAT is how to start a film!

This is one of those films that you rarely hear about, almost a lost classic.  You’ll be discussing Get Carter or The Long Good Friday and someone will say ‘you should see Villain‘, only as no-one ever has the conversation moves on quickly.  It’s such a shame that this is forgotten and shite like The Business is relatively lauded.  Richard Burton plays Vic Dakin, the kind of character that in summary sounds implausible; he’s a gay, sadistic, sociopathic gangland boss who lives with his Mum and rules part of London through fear.  It sounds implausible except that there was a guy like that in the sixties called Ronnie (or maybe Reggie, I get them confused) Kray.  And, whether you find him plausible or not, the depth of characters like Dakin put this film streets ahead of most efforts in the genre.

It isn’t just about Burton- and he is compelling, just the right side of overdoing it- everyone on show here is a cut above.  Especially Ian McShane who, as Wolfie a small-time hustler and object of Dakin’s sadistic lust, has an even more compelling part and really makes the most of it.  Even some of the minor characters are fascinatingly written- Nigel Davenport’s dogged, determined and stoical policeman Matthews who appreciates the futility of his task but presses on anyway; Joss Ackland’s gangster who spends an entire hold-up chomping down hard-boiled eggs to ease his stomach ulcer; top-notch Irish character actor T.P.McKenna’s rival gangster who is far more businessman than criminal; and smarmy, velvet-purring Donald Sinden as a crooked, seedy MP.

In fact, it isn’t just the characters- the plot is formulaic but the dialogue is marvellous (“he’s a bit bent for a start. You know the type, thinks the world owes him something. A wanker“, “you festering pig“, “Stupid punters. Telly all the week, screw the wife Saturday“) especially when Dakin is upbraiding anyone who dares to even look at a woman (“sordid!“) or doesn’t wash their hands after taking a piss.  I also liked the underlying themes that crime is just a job, a means of employment on both sides of the law and that removing one criminal just creates an opportunity for another jobbing criminal.  The crime-as-a-business angle is never overplayed but the existence of a structure, hierarchy and protocol as a given is an important aspect to Villain.

I’d like to mention Christopher Challis’ excellent cinematography, not only does he handle the task of transmitting gritty realism with aplomb but he manages to capture an excellent car chase and also take very intimate and graphic shots of various fights including the main crime around which the film revolves.  Superb.  The soundtrack too (Jonathan Hodge) is excellent, switching from tinny funk to stabbing synthy strings to John Carpenter-like piano motifs; all of it is reminiscent of films that would follow but oddly Hodge himself would get very little more work, similarly the director (Michael Tuchner) did little else of note.  But at least they did this.  A proper British gangster thriller that I loved- they even found a space for a Michael Robbins cameo- 8/10.

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The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

April 18, 2009

rutles-1“the whole thing is brilliantly authentic

This is a great film.  It works if you have a sketchy knowledge of The Beatles because it doesn’t rely on obscure references or in-jokes but equally if you do have a nerdy knowledge of the Fab Four (as I probably do) then it is never simplistic or inaccurate.  Knowing how possessive and geeky Beatles fans can be, that’s quite an achievement.

There are superb Beatles pastiche songs by Neil Innes from The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and hilarious cameos from George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Michael Palin, Bianca Jagger, Roger McGough, Paul Simon and Ronnie Wood- some as themselves, some as minor characters.  There are superb one-liners from the pen of Monty Python’s Eric Idle (“Many fans burnt their albums, many more burnt their fingers attempting to burn their albums”, “He was supposed to have been killed in a flash fire at a waterbed shop”, “In the midst of all this public bickering, “Let it Rot” was released as a film, an album, and a lawsuit”) and the whole thing is brilliantly authentic.  The Beatles Anthology, the real documentary which followed probably twenty years later and is also exceptional viewing, can’t help but look like this and that’s a great testament to the direction of Eric Idle and Gary Weis.  The budget might have been miniscule (it certainly looks like it) but it hardly matters, there is enough invention and intelligence here to make it all worthwhile.

The only real negative is that the film, sadly, peters out.  The frantic pace of the gags in the first three quarters of the film appears unsustainable and it doesn’t help that they are parodying a relatively sad period and slower, more introspective songs.  It’s hard to write a pastiche of something that was fairly ridiculous to begin with and the Maharishi stuff, the Magical Mystery Tour and the slow-motion bust up are all tip-toed around in the least satisfying segment of the film.  Swapping references to late sixties drugs like LSD and marijuana for tea just isn’t very funny, is it?

But it’s still fantastic, second only to the mighty This Is Spinal Tap. 8/10

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Rushmore (1998)

April 7, 2009

rushmore_adThis might be Murray’s best ever role

Amazing that I’d never seen this.  It’s a cracking little film, but one that slips a little under the radar being a little overshadowed by the star-heavy The Royal Tenenbaums.  It is a very Wes Anderson film;  lots of great screen compositions, beautiful colours, lots of stills with graphics, a phenomenal soundtrack, quirky characters doing pretty incredible (and frankly uncredible) things in between smoking a lot and riffing some impossible-to-extemporise dialogue.

It is about relationships and the lengths people will go to in order to get their own way.  And in Rushmore that familiar Anderson territory is better explored than he perhaps manages anywhere else.  Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer is a scholarship student at the prestigious Rushmore Academy who hides his modest background (his father, played by Seymour Cassel, is a barber) and will do anything to remain at the school.  He develops a friendship with a wealthy but unhappy middle-aged man Herman Blume (Bill Murray) and an infatuation with a teacher (Miss Cross, played by Olivia Williams).  Inevitably, they develop a relationship between them causing conflict and a reappraisal of priorities.

Where most of Anderson’s films are a triumph of style over substance- not necessarily a criticism of course- this one has a little more depth.  I particularly like the Oedipal themes which recur, Max has father-figure relationships with his own father (well, duh!), Herman Blume, Dr Guggenheim (Brian Cox, an underrated actor) and even is the father-figure for Dirk Calloway- I don’t know what it’s called in the US but here he’d be called Max’s fag.  The way in which the same relationship is shown with differing dynamics is really quite nicely done.  This also gives scope for some great characters and some really enjoyable performances, most especially by Bill Murray: Rushmore is a total gift for Bill.

I thought this was great.  I don’t want to give it an 8/10 because I’ve given loads of films an 8/10 and it feels a bit devalued, but that’s what it really is for me.  8/10

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Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

March 31, 2009

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It’s mad this.  I love it, but I’m aware of how mad it is.  Veteran B-Movie actor Eddie Constantine reprises a regular role as private detective Lemmy Caution in a Jean-Luc Godard film set in the future.  Bonkers.  Brilliant.

As with any film Godard makes the emphasis is very much on realism.  And so you have a sci-fi film noir thriller set in a dystopian future (is there any kind of future in the movies?) which is filmed in mid-60s Paris featuring actors wearing contemporary clothing and driving contemporary cars.  In fact, if it weren’t for the dialogue you would have no idea that this was set in the future.  It could almost be a French version of What’s Up Tiger Lily?  And yet, it is very realistic because Godard chose the most futuristic parts of Paris and Coutard shot them in such a way that it works.  We’re not talking a Buck Rodgers future here but a terrifying vision of a very real, very near future.  The film begins by telling the viewer that it is “24.17 Oceanic Time” which will really, really strike a chord with anyone who has read Orwell’s contribution to the genre 1984.  Or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  And those source materials are a pretty important touchstone for the film referenced throughout- with the omniscient central government, dehumanised population and deliberate shrinking of the language.  It is telling for me that Godard’s sci-fi film is the antithesis of the gaudy, style-over-substance, effects and costume-heavy movies which dominate the genre.  Strip away the trappings, he is saying, and there must be more to the film than mere window-dressing.  He must have hated the Hollywood of the last three decades.

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The film opens with Lemmy Caution arriving in Alphaville under the assumed identity of a newspaper reporter from Figaro-Pravda (that is simply delicious by the way).  The wonderful Misraki B-movie soundtrack accompany Caution as he enters an Alphaville hotel, checks in, gets the lift to his floor, negotiates the winding corridoors and arrives at his room.  This is all achieved with one tracking shot including the lift sequence (the camera goes up in one glass elevator, Caution in another alongside it) it takes four minutes in full.  Amazing.  I can’t emphasise that enough.

Alphaville is a harsh, cold, loveless and remorseless place.  Five years on from À Bout de Souffle,which was in part a love letter to the city of Paris, Godard’s view appears to have completely changed.  Caution’s disdain for Alphaville simply gives voice to Godard’s for Paris: “Everything weird is ‘normal’ in this damn town” he says at one point.  What Paris is and what it is becoming informs much of the movie thematically.  This also makes Constantine’s uncomfortable performance work really well, he isn’t a natural or polished and his clunky accented delivery and hesitant body language is perfect for the role of discomfited outsider.  He is taking the whole thing super-seriously  as a spy thriller and seemingly ignoring the philosophical or futuristic bits that he doesn’t quite get.  It’s a great case of a Director using an actor brilliantly in spite of the actors limitations, I love Eddie Constantine in this (and, in the interests of balance, I should say that he also does a pretty good job in The Long Good Friday).  Godard makes the most of Constantine, his ‘interesting’ face and world-weary manner- he is in almost every shot, certainly every scene.

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And yet he isn’t the key figure in the film.  The film is, in many ways, a love letter to Anna Karina.  From the first moment that she appears- accompanied by a beautiful score for strings and lit with great sensitivity- she is objectified as being of almost preternatural beauty.  Her performance justifies this treatment too, she is sensational in this.  The moment at the climax of the film where she says for the first time and with a new understanding of the gravity of her words “I love you” is one of those heart-meltingly rare cinema moments that stay with you.  She speaks as if these are the first words she has ever said, the music swells, fin.  Truly beautiful. 

Love is one of the things which can save Alphaville.  During the execution scene- a man is executed for acting illogically- he wept when his wife died, his final words are: “Listen to me normal ones!  We see a truth that you no longer see.  A truth that says the essence of man is love and faith, courage and tenderness, generosity and sacrifice.  Everything else is an obstacle put up by your blind progress and ignorance!”.  The execution itself is odd (the prisoners are shot by firing squad beside a swimming pool and retrieved by synchronised swimmers who are applauded wildly by spectators) and this bizarre method is in keeping with the bizarre reason for the execution.  Godard is mocking the concept (and indeed the conceit) of this future.  He goes further in the following scenes and reveals that in the face of dehumanisation, poetry is the answer.  When Alphaville’s super computer (and by the way Alphaville’s super computer has a voice like a frog vomiting) interrogates Lemmy Caution, it asks “do you know what turns darkness into light?” to which he responds poetry.  And reading a book of the poet Éluard’s poetry entitled ‘The Capital of Pain’ (presumably chosen for the title as much as the content) reawakens the humanity within Karina’s character.  Yet it is here that the film falters to a degree, as with all of Godard’s work, there is a heavy philosophical element and the longer-than-it-seems sequence on anti-linguistic theory (“unless words change their meanings and meanings change their words”- that kind of stuff) is a step that the film could really do without.  The film isn’t serious enough to do such conceits justice- that’s my feeling anyway.

Aside from that interlude (which I would probably have tolerated much better if I hadn’t been too tired to understand it all) this is typical Godard, he doesn’t piss about with unnecessary pauses, he just puts relevant scenes and events on screen in an innovative way subverting everything which has gone before.  He even depicts a fight in still photos to avoid unnecessary and untidy camerawork.  A film about the resurrection of tenderness and of love.  8/10

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Spellbound (1945)

March 28, 2009

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Hitchcock was such an ‘of-the-moment’ film-maker that there aren’t many who compare with him today in terms of using or risking their status to try and push the audience into new and uncomfortable territory.  Some of his work ends up being timeless as a result (Vertigo is a great example, North By NorthWest being another) and some is pretty badly dated.  Spellbound with its then novel and now well-worn themes of psychoanalysis and Freudian guilt falls into the latter category sadly.  I’m not sure that it’s really fair to judge a film on the basis of how well the basic premise has stood the passing of over six decades, how was Hitch to know that daytime TV would be filled wall-to-wall with cod-psychology and blithe misreadings of Freud and Jung reducing everyone to the role of pseudo-shrink?  That said, I am really only interested in how the film entertains or informs or affects me and so, fair or not, I’ll judge it on its merits in my opinion.  There’s probably a deep psychological meaning behind that too.

And Spellbound is very good, especially when it gets going.  The opening has been a little too successfully aped by Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety for me to be really swayed by it, sadly (High Anxiety by the way, is the opposite of Spellbound as it falters after a promising start).  Opening with Ingrid Bergman analysing the neurotic, misanthropic Mary Carmichael (played with relish as a latter day Countess Dracula by Rhonda Fleming) we learn about Bergman’s emotionless professionalism and you just know that her icy exterior is long overdue for being thawed by the right man.  At this point Gregory Peck enters the fray- it is a wonderful set-up, the only disappointment being that the on-screen chemistry between them doesn’t match that between her and Bogey or her and Cary Grant.  Now, you can be churlish and criticise the idea of them falling in love in less time than it takes me to choose what socks to wear on a given day, but what’s the point?  I just consider that you accept it and see where the movie takes you and- if it is a flop- use it as a stick to beat with later.  And so the scene where Peck and Bergman first meet sees them both in close-up; her in soft-focus him depicted with the hard lines of a real man, Miklós Rózsa strikes up the string section and the whole thing is sorted in the minds of the audience.  I would usually hate this but what I find forgivable about it- praiseworthy even- is that Hitchcock is simply getting the romantic interlude out of the way as efficiently as possible in order to get on with the thriller.  The scene proceeds to do just that as a neurotic and agitated Peck- who has already been depicted as “much younger than I imagined” and being very vague on the subject of his most recently published book- overreacts furiously to Bergman drawing a picture by tracing her fork upon the table linen.  There you go in one scene Bergman and Peck have fallen in love and Hitchcock has flattered the audience that they’re so smart knowing that he isn’t who he says he is.  Brilliant.

The plot proceeds apace, frosty analyst turned giddy schoolgirl Bergman is enraptured by Peck (has anyone in celluloid history attempted to say the word ‘liverwurst’ seductively before?) and they kiss in his room.  Now, I’m a little uncomfortable with one of Hitchcock’s conceits here- close-ups of his eyes and then her eyes are followed by a graphic of doors opening.  It’s all just a little too literal, or is because of the intervening years?  Have I been conditioned to demand more subtlety when that kind of pellucidity was precisely what contemporary audiences needed?  I’ll let it slide.

Right, so it becomes clear that not only is Gregory Peck not Dr Edwardes (odd spelling that) but that he may even have murdered Dr Edwardes and taken his place.  Peck disappears but leaves a note under Bergman’s door leading to a brilliant scene where several policemen and psychiatrists are standing just inside her doorway on the note which she can see but they haven’t yet noticed.  The tension is maintained superbly for what seems like an age before Bergman is able to retrieve the note- unbearably it is handed to her by Dr Murchison (Leo G. Carroll)- and follow Peck to a hotel in New York.  From there, in typical Hitchcock fashion, the chase is on.  Peck and Bergman are always- by design or by good fortune- half a step ahead of the police as she tries to break through his psychological blockages and prove his undoubted innocence (“I couldn’t love a man who is capable of such crimes” she says, well that’s all there is to it then).  At the same time Peck has no real belief in his innocence and while the audience can’t really believe he did it- he’s the hero for crying out loud- it is the most obvious and likely explanation for it all.  And to amplify that doubt Hitchcock shows us flashes of Peck’s temper, frames him with a cut-throat razor and a zombie-like stare and casts doubt upon his story left, right and centre.

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Bergman takes Peck to the home of her psychoanalytical mentor Dr Brulov (Michael Checkov, the best performer on show by a country mile) and while they wait for him to return with two strangers it becomes apparent that the men are policemen investigating the death of Edwardes.  Trapped, unable to even communicate both are struck dumb with terror as the policemen chat affably throwing their unease into even sharper contrast- it is the best sequence of the film- and the tension continues until Dr Brulov returns.  The policemen, it transpires, are unaware of Peck and Bergman’s supposed implication in the murder and are merely there to investigate the professional tension between Brulov and Edwardes which had almost escalated ino violence recently.  Now this is really clever, if this was a whodunnit the smart money would be straight on Brulov- especially when it becomes clear that he knows far more about Peck and Bergman’s arrival than he had initially indicated.  Seeing Peck with the razor Dr Brulov talks to him calmly and offers him a glass of milk.  He’s drugged him- with milk!  As if he was B.A. Baracus or something.  Brilliant.  “I ain’t getting on no psychoanalyst’s couch fool!”.

When Peck awakes, he recounts his dreams for the two Doctors to analyse and here we enter the most famous (and most unaccountably derided) sequence of the film- the Hitchcock/Dali dream sequence.  Okay, so a four year old could analyse the ‘hidden’ meanings (whoever could the mysterious ‘Proprieter’ be?) it doesn’t matter- what is important is the beauty of the sequence and, most importantly of all, the sheer chutzpah of its inclusion.  I’d defend this until my dying breath- if only more filmmakers had Hitchcock’s balls!

The climactic sequence of the film is filmed dramatically as Bergman desperately tries to undo her act of inadvertently convincing Peck and the policemen of his guilt- she is shown in stark monochrome uplit against dark backgrounds frenzied and hopeless.  And then, when all hope is lost, the truth falls into her lap by chance.  Agatha Christie once said “if you want to know who the murderer is in any crime novel, pick the most unlikely character.  He did it” and that holds true here.  Admittedly it isn’t the most unlikely person on screen, the fat cockney feller getting out of a lift in a brief cameo has absolutely no chance of reappearing, it is a convincing and plausible ending which gives Hitchcock an excuse for one last piece of bravura film-making, the big hand.

Oh it isn’t a perfect film, the ski-ing sequence (for example) is dreadfully executed and a lot of the great things here- especially the framing of Gregory Peck as a did-he didn’t-he murderer would be far better realised in Psycho but for the tension, for Rózsa’s great score (love that theremin work), for the brief-but-brilliant childhood memory sequence and for the breathless and intriguing narrative I loved it.  8/10

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Cul-de-sac (1966)

March 5, 2009

I can’t in all honesty tell you if this is supposed to be a comedy or a thriller or a psychological character drama.  It has elements of them all but is neither one nor the other.  I liked it a hell of a lot.  But I don’t think I quite got it.  Whatever misgivings I have about Polanski the man- and I genuinely don’t have an informed opinion, just concerns- he is an artist when it comes to film-making.  If I was pushed to name the single best film I have ever seen I’d choose Polanski’s Chinatown because it has everything that it possibly could have.  Well this isn’t a film of that calibre by any means, but it is a marker on the road to it.  Filmed in sharp monochrome in an isolated Northumbrian castle the visuals are stunning (the DoP was Gilbert Taylor who had done Dr Strangelove and Ice Cold in Alex and would go on to do Flash Gordon, Star Wars and The Omen (1976)).

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The main characters are retired businessman George (Donald Pleasance), his younger restless French wife Teresa (Françoise Dorléac) and a criminal intruder Richard (Lionel Stander- Max the gruff-voiced old guy from the titles of Hart to Hart) and much of the strength of the film stems from their interdependence and mutual loathing. George and Teresa are clearly unsuited, she appears to be conducting an affair with a neighbour which he condones for fear that confrontation may mean the loss of her.  They are bored of one another and appear bored of their life of isolation- hence the scene where Teresa dresses and makes up George as a girl.  Richard enters their lives as one of two wounded criminals seeking refuge.  They arrive in a presumably stolen driving instructor’s car (this is never explained and it’s these little details that make the film so interesting) and are soon cut off from leaving by the incoming tide.  Richard’s partner Albie dies and the dynamics of the film changes- Richard buries him without a flicker of remorse and then we see the three relationships build (or in the case of the married couple disintegrate), learning more about them by from what they don’t say than what they do.  The focus of all three’s attention is the due arrival of criminal boss Katelbach, by the standard theatrical device of concentrating upon someone that the audience hasn’t seen Cul-de-sac eases up the tension a little.

The tension is broken when some friends of George arrives unannounced.  Richard pretends (extremely unconvincingly) to be a handyman/butler and the guests, including a young Jacqueline Bissett who called herself Jackie in those days, make themselves at home. Their spoilt young child Nicholas runs amok (“That Froggy bitch pulled my ear off!“), William Franklyn schmoozes Teresa, Marion looks down her nose at everyone and everything and her husband Philip simply bores everyone.  Anticipating the arrival of Katelbach, George ushers them out at first abruptly and then with great rudeness.

The denouement of the film includes one of the all-time screen deaths and rounds the whole thing off wonderfully.  It is bleak and bizarre and unsettlingly neurotic.  The frustration and alienation that each character feels is brilliantly conveyed.  8/10

Incidentally, isn’t this Japanese promo poster rather wonderful:

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Frankenstein (1910)

March 1, 2009

This was the oldest film that I could find to watch.  I believe that is the oldest surviving horror film ever made.  I wanted to watch it to see just how unsophisticated films were when they began and, by implication, how sophisticated last night’s The Fall of the House of Usher from 1928 was.  This is pretty rough to be honest- the still camera captures some theatrical acting and the monster costume is lousy- but is surely the inspiration for Carry On Screaming‘s Oddbod.

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It also takes liberties with the text by changing the method of creation- the monster emerges from a cauldron full of ingredients- and the ending.  But with the limitations upon the film-maker, that was necessary.  In fact, Director J. Searle Dawley’s new ending is fantastic, the intertitle had said “Instead of a perfect human being, the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster” and the monster we see attack first the Doctor and then Elizabeth disappears as it looks in the mirror and is replaced by the Doctor himself.  If you thought Fight Club was a twist, then it was by no means a new one.  Frankenstein is the monster!  It’s a great way to tie up the story and also to bring into play the internal good v evil wrangling from the original text.

The creation of the monster is remarkably well executed for the period and the tinting- brown for storyline and blue for horror is an interesting idea.  It works far better than I’d expected.  8/10