Film 2018: Arsenic and Old Lace

I have a bit if a thing for 1940s black-and-white films. Not all of them, and it’s a mixed bag of drama and comedy, but I think what I like them for are qualities that itr’s impossible to bring to filming nowadays, and indeed for decades since. For want of a better word, I call that ‘innocence’.

These are films being made at a time when films were the biggest form of mass entertainment. They were being made on Hollywood sound-stages and sets with a degree of artificiality that the technology of the time couldn’t render natural, in an era when censorship and the twin forces of public taste and morals heavily restricted what could and couldn’t be said and done. As a direct consequence, the writers, directors and performers had to use a higher degree of wit, intelligence and skill to convey things that couldn’t openly be said or shown.

It was a time when films set out to invoke the imagination of an audience that was in on the act and was open, indeed wanted, their imaginations stirred, instead of today when colour, screen-trickery, CGI and changed mores see the audience’s imagination satiated whilst being ever more blatant about how they are being tricked by unreality.

We can’t make films like Arsenic and Old Lace any more because nobody in the film business believes the audience will take them seriously, even as comedies. But this film is a classic and it will go on being one for a generation or two yet. What will happen to it when people lose the ability to see in black and white, I shudder to think.

Arsenic and Old Lace was first released in 1944, though it had been shot a couple of years earlier, over the winter of 1941-2. It was based on the very successful Broadway play of the same name, and included several of the actors from the long-running hit, but was not allowed to be shown until the play ended its run. Cary Grant stars, after Bob Hope and a couple of others were unavailable, and Priscilla Lane is co-billed with him, though her role is considerable smaller. Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre are the villains, Massey playing the role Boris Karloff played on stage, which explains the in-joke of several references to his character looking like Karloff.

In modern parlance, the film/play is about a pair of serial killers, and a most unlikely pair at that. It’s based on a real-life incident that dramatist George Kesselring was originally planning to treat seriously, before he was persuaded to turn it into a black comedy, at which point it becomes a brilliantly pitched farce that enables Cary Grant to show off an incredible range of double-takes, delayed reactions, slow burns and plain hamming it up that sails the story onwards without stress through a near two hours.

Basically: Grant is Mortimer Brewster, dramatic critic and anti-marriage disparager, and he’s just getting married to the lovely blonde girl-next-door, Elaine Harper (Lane, looking wonderfully, innocently lovely). Elaine’s a minister’s daughter, who lives just the opposite side of a small graveyard from the Brewster house, where Mortimer was brought up.

The Brewster’s are a long-established Brooklyn family, who came over on the Mayflower. The house is owned by spinster sisters Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair from the stage version) who look after Mortimer’s brother Teddy (John Alexander, ditto). Teddy believes himself to be President Theodore Roosevelt, but the Misses Brewster are sweet, helpful and utterly sane.

Or so you think.

Mortimer’s had the taxi stop off so Elaine can pack her bags, he can tell his aunts (who’ve seen it coming) and then it’s off to Niagara Falls, the great big soppy cliched romantic husband. There’s a lot of kissing already going on and from the look in Mortimer’s eyes there’s going to be a lot of other stuff rapidly following on (from the mock-suspicious way Elaine’s treating that look, she can’t wait). Patrolman Brophy’s handing his beat over to rookie Patrolman O’Hara, and it’s the nicest beat in Brooklyn, and introducing him to the Brewster sisters. O’Hara’s a would-be playwright who’s going to be so delighted to meet Mortimer, he’ll be oblivious to everything else. Oh, everything’s entirely rosy.

Until Mortimer discovers the dead body in the window seat.

That’s Mr Hoskins. Aunt Abby did that one herself. Teddy’s informed that there’s been another death from yellow fever so he goes off to ‘Panama’ (the cellar) to dig another ‘lock’. Later, they’ll hold a service. It all started with a worn-out, lonely old man who had a heart attack whilst eating a meal with the Misses Brewster. Ever since, they’ve regarded it as their mission of mercy to give that kind of restful happiness to all other old friendless, family-less men. They drink elderberry wine. One gallon of elderberry wine, with one measure of arsenic, half a measure of strychnine and just a pinch of cyanide.

Mortimer can’t believe it, even through the entirely matter-of-fact manner, and slightly self-congratulatory air, his aunts adopt. At first he thinks it’s Teddy, in fact he’s convinced of it, but he has to believe them and that makes it worse.

Mortimer’s got to control this situation, which means pushing Elaine out of his mind (and the house and, possibly, his life: after all, he’s a Brewster too, and madness runs in the family). Got to get Teddy committed and off to Happydale Sanatorium!

Unfortunately there’s a fly in the ointment, if you didn’t already guess at the number of flies already buzzing. Mortimer has another brother, Jonathan, who takes it into his mind to turn up now, dragging in tow his partner, Dr Einstein, a small, cowering, permanently drunken plastic surgeon. Jonathan’s an evil, sadistic killer, by the way, also an escapee from an asylum for the Criminally Insane, and Einstein periodically alters his features. Just before the last operation, he’d seen this film with Boris Karloff in it…

Oh, and they’ve got a dead body with them that requires burial, a Mr Spinalzo.

Put everything together and watch it fizz. And boy, does it fizz.

Grant is simply brilliant, overplaying everything gleefully (I really cannot imagine Bob Hope is the part: well, actually I can, and he’d have made a god job of it in his own manner. But not like Grant). Raymond Massey is equally brilliant as Jonathan, underplaying in contrast and using his face and his sense of sinister presence to underlay things with a genuine frisson of unpredictabilty. Lorre plays a looser role, perpetually snatching snifters till his schnapps runs out, and cowering helplessly, to the point where you can’t begrudge him his miraculous escape at the end. And Hull, Adair and Alexander bring an inner and natural conviction to their daffy parts that keep you from ever doubting the story’s black premise.

At no point does the film ever treat the Brewster sister’s murders as anything other than a joke. Jonathan’s equally long history of murder (Dr Einstein has a good giggle over how the old ladies, without ever leaving Brooklyn, have exactly matched his globe-trotting score) is treated in exactly the opposite manner. We even see this onscreen: a Mr Gough responds to the ladies’ ‘Room for Rent’ notice before being chased off by an appalled Mortimer, much to their petulant dismay, but when Jonathan binds and gags Mortimer and plans to spend a little creative time with him, before the oblivious O’Hara interrupts, it’s creepy as hell: Massey makes it plain that Jonathan is going to enjoy this…

In the end, in a frantic ending, everything is resolved in true farce fashion: no, it isn’t: there are still thirteen bodies in that body, but nobody resents the flim-flam. Mortimer discovers he’s not a Brewster after all, by blood that is (he’s the son of a sea-cook, a joke that will shortly be impenetrable). Of course, the concerned Elaine nearly blows it all by discovering the bodies for herself, and as she’s the only witness to the graves who might be believed, Mortimer has to shut her up by kissing her, to which, after things have gone on for a sufficiently long time, she surrenders most willingly.

Arsenic and Old Lace was apparently taken pretty directly from the play, and it’s pretty much stage-bound in its set, with the one big room accounting for most of the action, and a few, short excursions to other settings, most of them scenes external to the house. It makes a virtue of this artificiality, further delinking its morbid subject from any strict response. I must have watched it a dozen times, especially on Sunday afternoons and now it’s taken its place in a Sunday morning Film 2018, and I’ve still laughed my head off.

We will have lost something indeed if we ever forget what makes this funny.



Film 2018: The Princess Bride

Originally, this was going to be another sub-titled film session. Possibly, I was going to choose Delicatessen, or maybe Swimming Pool. But it’s been a stressful week, and I was seeking out simple things to read, books I didn’t have to think about whilst reading, books I had no intention of writing about. I turned to my dog-eared, second hand copy of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, and from that naturally to its twenty-years later sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which Goldman details experiences with a new set of films, made and unmade. One such is The Princess Bride, adapted from his own novel. The moment I turned to that page, I realised that it had been ages since I’d watched it, and that I needed to watch it again as soon as possible.

Good morning.

Back in 1987, I was a regular, Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the Crown & Anchor, on Port Street, just back of Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, meeting a group of friends who had originally got together as comics and SF fans. This had been going on for several years. By this time, I usually gave John and Brian lifts home, even though this was miles out of my way, and John would often invite us in for a cup of tea with his elderly Mam and Dad (his Mam would cut the Calvin & Hobbes cartoons out of the Daily Express for me: lovely lady) and a chat. One Tuesday night, Film 87 was showing and Barry Norman showed a clip from a forthcoming film, The Princess Bride.

It was the clifftop scene. Two men – Inigo Montoya, a Spaniard seeking revenge for his father, slaughtered by a six-fingered man, played by Mandy Patinkin, and the Man in Black, a mysterious pursuing figure, played by Cary Elwes – are about to fight a duel withe swords.

And, oh my word, but this is brilliant! It’s an honest-to-goodness, stunningly athletic, Errol Flynn/Tyrone Powers swordfight, all flashing blades, athletic charges up and down rocks, superb poise, and running through it is this wonderfully ironic but completely deadpan commentary from the characters. In short, it’s a spoof, but it’s the only kind of spoof that really is funny, because it’s being made by people who know, and love, and understand, and respect the source, and it’s brilliantly balanced. No winks to the audience. No knowing looks that say, ‘hey, we all know this is crap, and only suckers watch stuff like this’. No mockery. It was stunning.

We all decided that we had to see this film. Blimey, if all of it was as good as this? And it is.

We didn’t go as mates, no. Instead, I took my girlfriend/love and her ten year old son, because we both knew it was the kind of film he’d love. What we didn’t reckon on was the manner of the opening, although his reactions which almost a perfect reflection of the way the film started.

William Goldman had written the novel of The Princess Bride in 1973. Like so many great stories, it started from stories made up for his children, two young daughters, one of whom wanted a story about princesses, the other a story about brides. Then he started writing it down, but soon found himself starting to struggle, until he hit on the idea of the book being the really fun bits of a longer story. The fiction is that Goldman’s book is an abridgement of the original story by S. Morgenstern, that Goldman’s dad used to read to him whn he was a kid only now Goldman realises his dad was leaving out the boring bits, which in the Goldman version are replaced by a running commentary from Bill himself, explaining what and why he’s cut out.

To produce that effect on film, Goldman introduced the brilliant device of a young, nameless boy (Fred Savage) ill at home in bed, whose grandfather (Peter Falk) is reading him the story when the Grandson would rather be playing video game Baseball. These two are a great double act, with the Grandson interrupting the film at various times, at first to complain about a dull story, and increasingly to comment when things are going the way he expects.

This enables Goldman to set things up, all the boring but essential exposition, by having the unimpressed Grandson chipping in. All about Buttercup (Robin Wright on her debut), the most beautiful woman in the world, not just in Florin, and patient, put-upon farmboy Westley (Elwes), whose only response to her demands is “As you wish”, and how they fall in love, and kiss (“you didn’t tell me there was going to be kissing!”). And Westley goes away to seek his fortune but his ship is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who leaves no survivors, and Buttercup’s heart was frozen, and then five years later, she’s selected to be the bride of Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon, wonderfully straight-faced in the role of a cowardly, plotting, villain) except that she doesn’t love him at all.

The Grandson’s not liking this and neither is David, squirming in his seat, getting ever more furious at us for tricking him into watching such a rotten film as this…

And then Buttercup gets kidnapped by an gloriously implausible trio, consisting of a puffed-up, short, bald Sicilian plotter, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn, constantly decrying every upset to his plan as “Inconceivable!”), the drunken Spaniard master swordsman, Inigo Montoya, and the slow-moving, rhyming Giant, Fezzick (wrestler and actual giant, Andre the Giant, real name A. R. Roussimoff).

This is where the film takes off. Just the look of the three, their extreme contrasts in size, their accents, Shawn’s near-shriek, was enough to take the film onto the elevated plane it would occupy from there on in. Vizzini’s trio are there to kidnap and kill Buttercup, to provoke a war between Florin and its ancient enemy, Gilder. Vizzini has planned everything to perfection. Exccept (“Inconceivable!”)…

Except the Man in Black is following them. Up the Cliffs of Insanity. Defeating Inigo in that magnificent fight. Defeating Fezzick’s strength (he’s out of practice with tackling one man, he usually fights groups, the moves are completely different). Outwitting Vizzini (“Inconceivable!!”) And confronting Princess Buttercup, with scorn for a woman who betrayed True Love, which raises Buttercup to a fury: losing Westley killed her, she will not have that mocked. She’s already realised that the Man in Black is the Dread Pirate Roberts, but only when she pushes him down a ravine and he calls “As… you… wish…” does she realise what the audience has already known for a long time, that he’s also Westley.

Oh, I forget to mention, there’s another complication. Prince Humperdinck is the greatest hunter in the world. There’s nothing he loves more than hunting. Except possibly hiring Vizzini to  kidnap and kill Buttercup and frame Gilder as an excuse to conquer Gilder in war and rule the world. And he’s on the trail.

By the way, just as an aside, remember how Inigo’s father was slaughtered by a six-fingered man? Humperdinck’s confidant, right hand man, and curious investigator into pain and torture is Count Rugen (lovely underplaying by Christopher Guest, dry, quiet, almost monotonous). Who has six-fingers on his right hand.

Reunited, Westley and Buttercup try to make their escape through the Fire Swamp. This is a studio set-up, with random gouts of fire, Lightning Sands (think quicksand, only instant) and R.O.U.S (Rodents Of Unusual Size), though much of what has gone so far has been filmed in gorgeous English countryside, mostly Derbyshire/Sheffield. I’ll come back to this scene later, but for now our True Love pair get all the way through, only to find Humperdinck and Rugan and their men waiting for them.

Westley’s prepared to die with defiance, but Buttercup can’t take his dying again. She surrenders to Humperdinck on condition he spares Westley’s life. And she’s sweet and naive and innocent enough to believe him when he says he will. Westley’s well aware that he’s going to be killed, but first Rugen intends to torture him in the Pit of Despair.

Change of plan. Whilst pretending to send messages to the Dread Pirate Roberts (it’s a title, practically a franchise: Westley inherited from Ryan when he retired, who inherited it from Cummerbund, etc.,) that he can collect Buttercup if he wishes, Humperdinck moves ahead with a complex plan to set-up the murder of Queen Buttercup, on her wedding night, by Gilder agents: actually, he’s going to strangle her himself, so much more satisfying.

Except that Buttercup may be naive but she’s not stupid. She sees through his plan on the Wedding Day, and bitterly and passionately accuses Humperdinck of being a coward, a rotten, lying, despicable coward. They say the truth hurts, and in this case, Humperdinck gets so mad, he storms down to the Pit of Despair, where Westley is connected to some sort of pre-industrial electrocution machine made of wood and water, slams it up to 50, and kills Westley.

Yes, that’s right. Kills. As in Dead. Dead dead. “You’re not reading it right,” complains the Grandson.

The hero is dead. But we still have Inigo and Fezzick, skill and strength. But without Vizzini, they need a brain: who better than the Man in Black? Even if he is dead: all they need is a Miracle.

Enter a great cameo from Billy Crystal, all made-up to be oooooold and Carol Kane as Miracle Max and his wife Valerie, allowed to improvise and doing so so well that Bill Goldman confessed that he wishes he had written one of their lines. This brings Westley back to life, if not actually motion, which leads to a storming of the Castle by two-and-a-bit men.

From hereon in to the end, this just gets too good to spoil, though there’s this confrontation scene between Inigo and Rugan, in which all of Mandy Potinkin’s dialogue is repetitions of “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” For months, I could reduce David to shrieks of laughter just by putting on the accent and saying “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya…”

And it all ends happily ever after.

The film was praised everywhere but didn’t become a commercial smash until the era of Home video.With one caveat I’m about to come to, I think it’s brilliant, and what makes it so is that it is played completely seriously throughout. The casting is perfect throughout, and everyone is not only completely comfortable in their roles, they are plainly loving every minute of it. Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin both learned to fence to play the Clifftop scene, and that’s all them (except for the somersaults).

What makes the spoof side work so well is that they play the story entirely seriously at every moment. That’s how it works: the film respects its audience, it condescends neither to its material nor to them. It’s the perfect example of why the 1979 big budget Flash Gordon was such a piece of shite.

You can only get under the skin of something and make it so funny if you love it. You can’t do it with something you hate, that you only want to tear down.

My one caveat, and it’s something that has only struck me today, on this watching, is that the film is very male-oriented. Apart from supporting cast, there are only two female roles of any substance, and one of those is Carol Kane. There’s basically just Robin Wright, and that’s it. She’s perfect for the role and even at twenty she shoulders such an important part without any missteps. But it took the Fire Swamp sequence for me to suddenly see that hers is an almost purely passive role.

Buttercup is the incarnation of the old-fashioned Princess. She’s there to be rescued, as Westley does, time and again, in the Fire Swamp. She doesn’t have anything to do herself. There are two confrontations with Humperdinck where, once out of desperation, once out of contempt, her words change the movement of the story. And there are two points where Buttercup takes actual, physical action in her own behalf, instead of waiting for Westley to save her. The first is where she dives out of Vizzini’s boat in an attempt to escape, only to land in water infested with deadly Screaming Eels, forcing her to retreat. And the other is when she shoves the Dread Pirate Roberts in the back, down into the ravine, discovers it’s Westley back from the dead, and hurls herself after.

It’s not much. It’s certainly not any kind of subversion of the cliches. I didn’t think that way back in 1988, when we took David to the cinema, but I think that now, and it’s a blot, a tiny blot on a film that would definitely be one of the ten I’d take to a desert island with a functioning DVD player and a reliable source of electricity. The Princess Bride is out-and-out fun!

Film 2018: The Incredibles

We have TV screens all around the place where I work, which is hardly surprising given where I work. Only occasionally is any sound allowed, for the obvious reason that we are there to be on the phone with customers, and the dialogue from prominent and popular movies – or the crashing sound effects of things crashing – is detrimental to our work.

On Monday night, they put on The Incredibles. Even in complete silence, this was amazingly distracting. This week’s Film 2018 selection was decided in an instant and I have been waiting all week for the chance to watch the film.

It’s astonishing to think that this film has been around for fourteen years now, given that it’s still instantly fresh. Like all the non-Toy Story Pixar classics (two more of which are due in this series), I have only ever seen it on DVD, though I intend to half-repair this omission when The Incredibles 2 comes out in June. So its spectacle and effect have been limited, but not to the film’s disadvantage, because this is a film perfectly balanced between the classic superhero display of powers in impossible situations and the domestic reality of ordinary life when you’re capable of doing all these amazing things everyone else can’t: when you’re capable of doing all these amazing things and you’re not allowed to.

It’s still the best superhero film ever made, and unless its sequel does outdo it, I suspect it always will be, because it draws everything together into a single, consistent plane, bending the ordinary, domestic life into a setting that perfectly matches the superheroic existence.

This is the diametrically opposite approach to the Marvel and DC Cinematic universe films. Because these are live action, no matter how well it’s done, the CGI necessary to create the superheroic aspects of the film will always occupy us differently as an audience. The first Christopher Reeve Superman very intelligently used the tag-line “You will believe a man can fly”, and for the time we did. But just as the tag drew our attention to the fact that a man cannot actually fly, we never lose sight of the fact that we are being tricked.

And that disbelief, the knowledge that none of this exists outside a computer remains with us throughout a film, and we constantly switch between the apparently real and the comic book recreation, criss-crossing an infinitessimal mental border.

In The Incredibles there’s no such thing. Look at the Parr’s in their enforced domestication. They’re not real people. Look at Mirage, who is all head, oversized eyes and impossibly elongated and inhumanly thin legs. She is consistent though with the beautifully balanced mixture of realism and stylism which is comics’ natural metier.

And because the ‘actors’ are only voice actors, you are not tied to extensive scenes where you have to have the cast act and interact in their civilian identities, away from the CGI, because the superhero versions are inevitably less interesting to play and everyone knows the audience is only looking at the effects at that point. CGI people are equally home in and out of costume: indeed, they can be one person, indivisible, whatever ‘costume’ they’re wearing.

The story is also both highly entertaining and enjoyably complex in the number of areas it spreads into. The basis of the story is that, after a number of legal claims against ‘supers’ in general, but Mr Incredible (a super-strong, musclebound hunk) in particular, the heroes are forced to retire and live ordinary lives: in the case of Bob ‘Mr Incredible’ Parr, that of an insurance assessor working in a soulless – on more level than one – job.

Bob’s married to Helen, aka the former Elastigirl, a female version of Plastic Man/Elongated Man/Me Fantastic (and let’s not mention DC’s original Doom Patrol member, Elasti… uh… Girl). Fifteen years have passed, they have three children, the shy Violet, who can turn invisible and project forcefields (so totally not like the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl/Woman), the excitable superspeeding Dash (The Flash, The Flash, several Flashes in fact, and don’t forget Quicksilver) and baby Jack-Jack.

When Bob’s frustration cause him to get fired yet again, he conceals this from Helen out of shame. But then he’s secretly hired as Mr Incredible to capture a hostile robot on a remote Pacific island, not realising it’s a trap organised by his new arch-enemy, an incredibly clever inventor burning with the desire for revenge because Mr Incredible wouldn’t take him on as sidekick.

Helen, fearing he’s having an affair, goes off in search of him, the kids stowing away, which precipitates the entire family into a wild, nonstop action adventure that’s just so much bloody fun to kick back and watch.

The beauty of this, from the point of view of the older comics fan, a veteran of the era when comics were first and foremost supposed to be fun, to be enjoyable, is that that’s exactly the note the film strikes. It can be serious, and in its quieter moments, it can be dark, but it never loses sight of the sheer rush of excitement of being able to do things completely beyond the normal, the everyday, the average.

Which is what superheroes have been about since the very beginning. For decades now there’s been much learned and deep-diving argument about Superman and the dichotomy between him ad Clark Kent, and some of it has been interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining, but too much of it has lost sight of the fact that the intrinsic appeal of not just Superman but all superheroes is that we as readers are always and forever and can only be Clark Kent, or Barry Allen, or Peter Parker, or Steve Rogers, but that onside us all, and a secret to those around us, we can be something incredibly beyond that.

There’s an element of that in the film, a recognition of this central characteristic. As Mr Incredible, Bob Parr has it all: acclaim, enjoyment, physical superiority, the love of the ultra-flexible Elastigirl. As Bob Parr, he’s a complete incongruity, a going-to-seed muscleman absurdly disproportionate to a commonplace world. He literally doesn’t fit. He doesn’t fit into the very ordinary life that his family has been reduced to, bit to which Helen has adjusted. His frustration is with not being Mr Incredible, not getting the rush, hers is with his refusal to accept reality, his inability, ultimately, to accept his children, and indeed her. Sure, her bum’s got bigger that in her glory days, but so’s his waistline.

That basic set-up, a physical incarnation of the enemy being the pram in the hallway, dominates the first half of the film, but what it really is is that no-one’s being allowed to be who they really are. Once that’s accepted, on all levels, the family instantly becomes a fully-functioning unit. We don’t see it manage domestic life better, but we know it does  (and Bob and Helen are at it again like rabbits, which is always a healthy sign).

But paramount in all the pandemonium is that having superpowers is fun, and the film never forgets that, especially in showing both Violet and Dash bloom once they can be their powered selves.

Director and writer Brad Bird refused to do a sequel until he had something better that The Incredibles for an idea. Come June, I hope he’s going to be right. This film is perfect for a Sunday morning.

Film 2018: Picnic at Hanging Rock

I’ve been thinking about this film for several weeks now, but the conditions never seemed to be propitious. It’s not so much the frame of mind to be in before sitting down to watch this classic film, but rather the state of mind it induces, and which then persists past the end of the film.

Picnic at Hanging Rock was directed by Peter Weir, only his second full-length film. It catapulted him, the film and Australian cinema in general into the international spotlight, and remains Australia’s most popular film ever.

The film is, should you wish to try to pin it down to genre, an historical mystery. It’s based on Joan Lindsey’s 1967 novel, which blurs the distinction between fiction and non-fiction (the story is not a real-life event). On Valentine’s Day, 1900, the pupil’s of a private school, Mrs Appleyard’s College, go on a Valentine’s Day picnic to Hanging Rock, near Mount Macedon, Victoria. Three girls, and their Maths teacher, go missing. Extensive searching, both organised and private, finds no trace of the missing women, though one is later found, and rescued, though without any memory. The College attracts a negative reputation, and ends up closing. Another girl ends up dying, as does Mrs Appleyard.

That’s all there is in terms of plot. Ms Lindsey originally wrote a chapter ‘solving’ the mystery, albeit in somewhat abstract terms, but was sensibly persuaded against including it in the original novel: twenty years later, it was published separately, but still remains excluded, and rightly so.

But Picnic at Hanging Rock is not about story, though in its depiction of the after-events of the disappearance there is a cold inevitability about what follows. It’s about time, and place, and atmosphere, and in the film’s first half, about a sense, palpable from the opening scenes, of young, pretty girls, opening Valentine’s Day cards and gifts to one another, a pervading, unexpressed sexuality that flows from the screen. Unexpressed, not repressed, I say: though the girls’ natural exuberance for their age is repressed, as would be the case in a school devoted to turning out young ladies (on the picnic, the girls are given permission, in light of how hot the day is, to remove their gloves, but only after passing through the town of Woodend), but their sexuality is completely unconscious.

Anne Lambert plays the leading girl, Miranda, a fair-haired, open-faced, beautiful young woman, a school favourite, and the object of a serious crush by the dark-haired, thin, orphan girl, Sara. Just before she disappears, she is described by Mam’selle as a Botticelli Angel, and Lambert is glowing and beautiful enough to justify her role as the Golden Girl, to suggest someone too ethereal and lovely to live on Earth, a girl who might be snatched by the Gods of old.

Sara (Margaret Nelson) is excluded from the picnic because she is in trouble with Mrs Appleyard. We’re not told of the reasons but later we learn that Sara, an orphan separated for some years now from her brother Bertie, is six months in arrear with her fees, and that her Guardian has not responded to correspondence in all that period, so we assume she was cut because of this financial liability.

Weir recreates the time immaculately – the place itself is naturally unchanged – and there is never a moment when we do not believe it is 1900. Hanging Rock is still, serene, yet somehow foreboding. The Director keeps returning to rock formations that suggest facial features, and to rock towers that are definitely penile-shapes. The heat is soporific, and it is a credit to the actresses that, clad in long, white, high-necked, long-sleeved cambric dresses, over corsets and black stockings, they look cool and only marginally troubled. But no-one moves fast, in fact most of them sit, or lie, elegantly, in recumbent poses. Heads lie in other girls’ laps,tendrils of hair are gently stroked, or flowers drawn across brows.

In the midst of this, Miranda wants to go for a walk with Irma (Karen Robson) and Marion (Jane Vallis). Edith, a dumpy, whiny girl, (Christine Schuler) asks to go with them. Though they have been ordered not to explore the Rock, not even its lower slopes, due to the danger, they make their way through the forest and higher, through rock formations, and passages and level gullies that turn the Rock into a maze (throughout the film, Weir sites shots from inside crevices, or in narrow side-gulleys, showing people pass, creating the sense that someone, or some thing, is watching).

In the forest below, they pass, unaware, before the eyes of young Englishman Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard), visiting his Aunt and uncle, whose upper-class and decidedly English world is stultifyingly inert, mentally and physically. Mike is talking to his Uncle’s decidedly working-class Australian valet, Albert Crundell (John Jarratt), himself an orphan, with a kid sister he hasn’t seen in years. There’s a definite homoerotic undertone to their friendship, equally unconscious but based in repression, that parallels the atmosphere created about the girls.

Miranda and Co. climb higher. They are overcome at one level, perhaps by the heat but we have now become absorbed into the film and the sweeping abruptness of it suggests something more than mere physical intensity. Even the awful Edith is affected. They sleep and then, led by Miranda, who is becoming more unworldly by the moment, they all wake up together. The three beautiful girls remove their shoes and stockings (there is a particularly individual close-up shot on one girl, in which the camera pans with the stocking and the accumulating folds as it is drawn down, rather than the bare leg being exposed).

And there is a final moment when Miranda, seeming almost to be in a trance, leads Marion and Irma upwards through another crack in the rock, in which they disappear, leaving Edith to scream and scream in hysteria and run away, and Miranda softly and wonderingly says, “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.”

Weir then cuts to the College at night, the overdue return of the carriage, Mrs Appleyard’s stern disapproval, Mam’selle’s disheveled panic, Sara’s silent misery, and the news that, unseen by all, the veteran Maths teacher, Miss McCraw has also disappeared.

The film changes, the sexuality is dissipated. The disappearance is a rock dropped into a still pond: the second half of the pool the ripple, spreading until it reaches the banks.

There is a major manhunt, beating the brush, calling ‘Coo-ee’, dragging ponds. An abo tracker is called in, bloodhounds. Nothing is found. Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) confides in her senior assistant, Miss Lumley, that the College is suffering financially: three girls vanished, three whose parents are withdrawing them, six sets of fees vanished, in addition to the mounting arrears in the case of the Weybourne Girl (Sara).

Mike Fitzhubert becomes obsessed with the missing girls, unable to bear the thought of them being out there. Why does it matter so much to him? Why can’t he put it out of his head, like Albert? He followed them, at first, for a short way, or so he told the Police, though not at first. His obsessions might fit a man who knows more than he lets on, a man affected by guilt, seeking expatiation.

He talks Albert into coming with him for another hunt on the Rock. At day’s end, he insists on staying. Early the next morning he sets out again, hatless. An increasingly desperate Albert finds him, overcome, and brings help in the form of a Doctor. But Mike has a torn scrap of white cambric in his hand, and when Albert retraces the Engishman’s steps, he finds Irma, dehydrated, exposed, but still alive, just.

Irma recuperates at the Fitzhugh estate. Mam’selle rejoices but Mrs Appleyard is contemptuous of her. For only one to be found is a disaster. The College has become international news and this will only further ensure their infamy. She comes to a decision: the Weybourne Girl must go, back to the Orphanage. Sara, who has taken to her bed, and erected a love-shrine to Miranda, says nothing. There follows a series of night shots, entirely still and peaceful, and Sara’s empty bed. In the morning, Mrs Appleyard tells Mam’selle that Sara has left in the early hours, before breakfast: her Guardian, in a hurry, collected her, mrs Appleyard supervised the packing of her bags.

Albert relates to Mike that he has had a dream of his kid sister, a dream full of light in which she came to him, saying she had come along way to visit him but had to go now. She called him Bertie: do I have to add that one up for you? He’s going to head north, look for her.

Term is over, the girls have left. The gardener unlocks the greenhouse. There is broken glass everywhere, and a hole in the roof, through which he can see the turrets of the upper floor. Parting the plants, he finds Sara’s blood-stained body. Running to tell Mrs Appleyard, he finds her at her desk, in full travelling outfit. She simply stares at him.

A voiceover, seemingly as an afterthought, by the Police Sergeant, relates that despite further sporadic searching, no-news found. The body of Mrs Appleyard was found at the base of the rocks: presumably she had been attempting to climb them.

The ripple reaches the banks, and dies out.

Joan Lindsey wrote an explanation. You can read about it in the Wikipedia entry on the novel if you so choose: even knowing that the original author wrote this, I cannot mentally or emotionally attach it to the story. Something happened, something outside our ken, and no answer can ever stand up to the numinous mystery. Some things are better left unexplained, unreduced to the flat and banal and concrete. Without that, we can imagine, and Weir gives us plenty to imagine. Where, and how, did they go? What more did Mike know? It appears that Sara committed suicide, but did she really jump?

Wherever we turn, there are shadows, even under the glare of the sun. Thefilm is slow, measured, careful. There are no fast movements, save for those of animals. Irma cannot remember what happened to her: when she is reintroduced to the girls, before going home to Europe, she is an alien creature, a woman, not a girl, dressed richly. All she causes is hysteria, accusation, horror.

Though there is also conventional music on the sountrack, Weir makes extensive use of the pan-pipes of Romanian musician Gheorge Zhamfir (whose ‘Doina de Jale’ unexpectedly became a no. 4 hit in Britain in 1976, the year after this film) creating a mournful, unearthly atmosphere, as well as silence. People say little, do nothing. They are still, they look, they think and the camera waits for them. It’s like being in a dream.

The version I watched today is the Director’s Cut, part of the 2008 3xDVD Deluxe Edition. it’s approximately eight minutes shorter than the original Theatrical release, which appears on a bonus disc, and which I take to be the version I first saw on TV, somewhere in the Eighties. At some point, I will watch that version, and if I have anything further to say, I’ll append a postscript.

It isn’t in the Film 2018 repertoire, but one of these days, I’ll write something about Weir’s major Hollywood success, Witness. I have a story or two about that film.

Film 2018: Airplane!

Something simple for a working Sunday, like I said.

Airplane! was the third film by the writer director team of Jerry Abrahams, David and Jerry Drucker, and probably their biggest hit. It was a spoof of disaster movies in general – a biiiig fad in the mid/late-Seventies – and of the Airport franchise in particular, these being a justly forgotten series of films featuring an entire soap opera of personal stories set in an airport experiencing a disaster.

Airplane! made a star again of Leslie Neilson for the rest of his life, playing the straight funny man who was always more serious than his role even as everything was collapsing around him, and usually because of him. And it was a key film in the throw-a-lot-of-jokes-at-the-wall-and-don’t-wait-to-see-if-any-of-them-stick genre.

I’d first heard of the Abrahams/Zucker/Zucker combo through Barry Norman’s championing of their low budget, brilliantly raucous and extremely silly first film, The Kentucky Fried Movie (later this year) in 1978, though the script for Airplane! was an earlier effort, based very directly on the 1957 film Zero Hour! I’ve never (knowingly) seen that film, and I know from experience that films like Arplane! are so much funnier when you’re familiar with what’s being parodied and can see how exact the joke is,

But you don’t really need that much knowledge to get along. The film throws everything at you and doesn’t wait. Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges play no-nonsense characters, Stack in particular playing his image whilst Bridges sends his up to a greater extent, and there are cameos all over.

The story is simple: passengers on a flight from LA to Chicago are badly affected by food-poisoning, including all the crew. A substitute pilot is needed to land the plane and this is Ted Stryker (Robert Hays, a newcomer). Ted was a fighter pilot in the War but is traumatised by his experiences: he’s only on the plane as it is because he’s pursuing his stewardess girlfriend, Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) after she has decided to leave him. Once he gets the plane down safely, it rekindles their love.

But who needs a story? It’s only a framework on which to overload all sorts of absurd jokes: puns, sight gags, gross outs, deadpan, extreme bad taste, you name it, Airplane! has it somewhere.

And it also has the semi-legendary Leslie Neilson exchange, “Surely you can’t be serious? I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.” that’s used judiciously in the film and is always warmly familiar.

I haven’t watched this in ages, and I enjoyed it still, but it’s starting to feel a little sluggish now, as the pace of comedy has accelerated in the past couple of decades, and the Saturday Night Fever scene has dated seriously now, and is much too long.

But it’s simply funny, and it’ll stay funny for a long time yet. I’d rather re-watch it immediately than go to work…


Film 2018: The Man Who Came To Dinner

I’m old enough to remember when Sundays were Sundays: the Day of Rest, whether you wanted it or not which, as a small boy, full of small boy energy, I didn’t. Rest on Sunday afternoons meant Boredom. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing on the telly.

And when there was, traditionally it was a Sunday afternoon film, in black and white. Of course, until 1973, all films were black and white unless you went to see them in the cinema, but so many Sunday afternoon movies were still in monochrome: family entertainment, fit for all the family.

And none the worse for it. Sunday afternoons were peaceful things, when time didn’t so much pass as saunter, and you’d lay back in the armchair and let yourself be absorbed into a world that no longer existed, that never really did exist, but which had passed before you were born.

I can’t imagine having seen The Man Who Came To Dinner for the first time on any other occasion. Maybe it was one of those occasional, post-squash Sunday afternoon films in Nottingham where, after our weekly game, our trip to the pub and coffee, my old friend and I would lazily watch some old piece of Hollywood, just leisurely appreciating a bit of company.

My parents loved it. And I love it too. It’s a brilliantly funny, fantastically waspish comedy, shamelessly name-dropping and equally shamelessly incorporating real famous people, less thinly-disguised that utterly transparent, it rolls along on a tidal wave of glorious bitchiness, and it feels strange to find that a great many people, including one if its stars, were disappointed with the outcome. It makes me wonder what it might have been if their ideal version could have been produced.

The film’s based, quite heavily, on a very successful Broadway play written by Moss Hart and George Kaufman, inspired by an offhand comment about their friend, the broadcaster and critic Alexander Woolcott. Woolcott had invaded Hart’s home, taken over the master bedroom, terrorised his staff, been thoroughly unpleasant and left a message in the guest book that this had been the most unpleasant experience he’d ever had. Telling Kaufman, Hart joked about how lucky he’d been that Woolcott hadn’t broken his leg and been forced to stay a month. Inspiration was born.

That’s the story. Beloved writer, broadcaster and lecturer Sheridan Whiteside (played by Woolcott himself on stage originally, and later by Monty Woolley, who stars in the film) is in the Ohio town of Mesalia, where he’s to have dinner with Ernest and Daisy Stanley. Unfortunately, he slips on the icy step, fractures his hip and has to stay. Whiteside is rude, domineering, dictatorial, self-centred and completely indifferent to anyone else. He announces he’s suing the Stanleys for $150,000, but in the meantime takes over their home, lock, stock and barrel.

Whiteside’s a monster, no other word for it. You’d hate to meet him anywhere near real life, but when he’s happening to other people, he’s glorious to watch. Woolley is bombastic, acid and endlessly quick with his rapid-fire responses.

The problem is that Maggie Cutler (Bette Davies), his entirely practical and competent secretary, meets and falls in love with local newspaperman, Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis), who has also written a very good play. For Maggie, love has come late, but hard, and it means everything to her. She’s going to quit, and marry Bert – if he’ll have her.

But Whiteside’s having none of that. Under the guise of saving Maggie from making a fool of herself, which no-one buys for a minute, Sherry hauls in the glamorous and, it is gently established, promiscuous actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan, but the original is Gertrude Lawrence) to take Bert away. Unfortunately, Maggie really does love Bert, even if he is a bit on the naive side in this respect, and heartbrokenly resigns anyway.

By now, Whiteside’s meddling is causing chaos. In an apparently sincere fashion, having gotten on well with the Stanley’s children, Richard and June, he’s encouraged both to run away, Richard to follow his dream of becoming a photographer, June to marry her labour organiser boyfriend and, in doing so, enabled the much put-upon Stanley to get a warrant to throw him out.

He’s conned the local Doctor into concealing that Sherry’s hip has never been fractured at all by pretending to be interested in collaborating on his memoirs, ‘Forty Years an Ohio Doctor’. He’s terrorised his nurse, the dedicated Miss Preen, into leaving nursing to work in a munitions factory in order to be able to kill large swathes of humanity off) and he’s up against a very tight deadline with only his eccentric Hollywood comic friend, Banjo (Jimmy Durante, playing Jimmy Durante as Harpo Marx – who also played Banjo on stage and why not, since Banjo is Harpo) to help.

We’ve already had a splendid cameo from Reginald Gardiner as suave, slinky actor Beverley Carlton, channeling Noel Coward, to further complicate the plot.

And a deus ex machina, well two, actually, arrives in the nick of time. One in the form of an Egyptian sarcophagus, which is used to get Lorraine out of there – seriously, it is – and the other a surfacing memory of exactly who Stanley’s sister Harriet used to be, which puts Sheridan Whiteside back on top of the wheel again and enables him to ensure everybody gets the ending they deserve.

Except: leaving exactly on Ernest Stanley’s deadline, with a comic inevitability that provides a perfect ending, Sherry turns back to answer a telephone call from Eleanor Roosevelt. He slips, on the icy step. And falls down them. Roaring in pain, he is carried back inside, calling for the Doctor, for Miss Preen, and threatening to sue… for $350,000!

It’s a beautifully balanced film, a comedy with no better idea than to make you laugh, whilst poking fun at well-known personalities. Of course, if you stop to think about it in serious terms, along the lines of Hollywood types and their extreme world invading the home-life of middle-class midwesterners who, on their best day, can’t approximate one-hundredth of the speed of the glamorous, it’s a horror film, but the vigour of the writing and the equal vigour of the actors, and the sheer number of sub-plots that spin around, bouncing off each other, you have neither the time nor the inclination to do that.

And Bette Davies as Maggie is superb. Hers is the only straight role in the picture, the only one that requires playing naturalistically, even underplayed at times, and she’s brilliant, most of all in the scene where, her plot with Beverley Carlton for him to impersonate Lorraine’s latest target and draw her off having succeeded splendidly, the whole thing blows up in her face when Bert, of all people, gives the game away innocently. Anne Sheridan goes perfectly over the top, but Davies’ body language, her almost expressionless face, her retiring into the background sell the truth strength of her feelings,and the unbearable loss she’s suddenly facing.

I have very little familiarity with Bette Davies’ work, but she is superb in this film. Which makes it altogether surprising and dispiriting to learn that she was disappointed with the film, and with the choice of Monty Woolley as Whiteside. Davies had played a substantial part in getting the rights bought, as a vehicle for her and the legendary John Barrymore, only for the latter to be rejected because his heavy drinking left him unable to deal with the fast-paced dialogue (Barrymore would die the same year the film appeared): Davies regretted never working with him.

Despite the criticism, I love the film. The casting is perfect, the dialogue fresh, the ending a gorgeous sting and Woolley seizes the part of his  life and plays it like a deep sea fisherman with a marlin. But then, I have a liking for the films of the late Thirties and early Forties, films for a time of greater innocence than we’ve known for a long time, when things could be said and done in films that our cynicism makes laughable in these times, but could be portrayed with belief for an audience that believed.

Sunday afternoon innocence on a Sunday morning. Ducky!

Film 2018: Curse of the Golden Flower

Not wishing to find myself having to work through a surplus of sub-titled foreign films at any point, I decided I would select another this week. Not being in the mood for any of my French collection (or my solitary Mexican: can you guess what it is yet?), I settled upon my only Chinese language film, the opulent high melodrama from 2006, Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower, better known in my erstwhile household as ‘Curse of the Heaving Bosoms’.

I have fond memories of seeing this film in the cinema. It was one of a tiny handful I saw when away in the Lake District, at Zeferelli’s, a small but luxury restaurant/ cinema in Ambleside. I was going to the Lakes on holiday at least once, usually twice a year between 1983 and 1996, yet I’d only gone to Zeferelli’s once: not out of any purist objection but simply because when I was in Ambleside, they were never showing any film I wanted to see! The previous week’s film, yes, the next week’s film, yes, far more often than was statistically probable, but this week’s never, except once, and that a special late-night performance.

(We’ll be seeing that film later on, as with the only other one I saw in the Lakes, this time in Keswick)

But my wife and I had gone away for a couple of days break, to Ambleside, and Curse of the Golden Flower was on, with a special restaurant deal that secured us a meal and priority seats, and we had a lovely evening, with good food and a film that held our attention, as well as giving us much cause for private amusement, not to mention the unavoidable nickname we coined between us, that sounds like something I’d come up with, but which I can’t any more remember if it weren’t her that invented it.

Curse of the Golden Flower was a next-but-one follow-up to the 2004 international success of House of Flying Daggers, which I have seen on television, though whether it was before or after this cinema visit, I don’t recall. I remember it being hailed as another major success, if anything greater than its predecessor, but Wikepedia tells me its reception was decidedly more equivocal: nevermind, we loved it.

The film is supposedly set in 928AD, on the eve of the Festival of Crysanthemums, for which the Emperor (Cow Yun-fat) has returned from distant warfare with his second son, Jai (Jay Chou). Jai, and Third Brother Yu (Qin Junjie) are sons by the Empress (Gong Li), daughter of the King of Liang, but the Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye) is the son of the Emperor’s first wife, who believes to have been dead for twenty years. Wan and the Empress have been conducting an incestuous relationship (though they are completely unrelated by blood).

The Emperor has become aware of this. For ten years, he has prescribed medicine for the Empress’s anaemia, to be taken in ritual fashion every two hours. He has not had the Imperial Doctor (Ni Dahong) add to it a new ingredient, a Persian black fungus that, after a certain period, will cause the empress to lose her mind.

The medicine is brought to the Empress by Jiang Chan (Li Man), the Doctor’s daughter, who is also the lover of Crown Prince Wan.

But the Empress will not submit without a fight. She plots a coup, an Army 10,000 strong, bearers of the Yellow Crysanthemum, to overthrow the Emperor and install Prince Jai in his stead. Jai is a loyal son but, when he learns how his mother is being steadily poisoned, he agrees to lead her forces.

And the Empress has employed a very skilled female spy of a certain age to discover the new ingredient. This is Jiang, the Imperial Doctor’s wife, mother to Chan. But she is also the Emperor’s first wife, escaped from being put to death, and she is Wan’s birth-mother.

When the Emperor discovers Jiang in the Palace, he spares her, promoting the Doctor to the position of Governor of Suzhou, applicable immediately. But he plans treachery: black-clad ninjas attack, killing the Doctor’s party, and the Doctor, despite the intervention of red-clad soldiers sent by the Empress. Chan has already ridden for the Imperial Court, unable to understand her mother’s violent opposition to her relationship to Wan. Jiang pursues her.

But it is the eve of the Festival. The Emperor commands all. Wan has tried to kill himself when learning of the Empress’s plans, knowing that however innocent he is of this, he will be blamed by the country. He reveals all to the Emperor, who knows already.  The family, except Jai, who commands the Palace troops and has already sent them away, comes together. Chan and Jiang reach the deserted Palace and are attacked by Ninjas: the Empress’s red soldiers create a path for them.

Cruelly, the Empress reveals to wan and Chan that Jiang isWan’s mother. Wan is thunderstruck that she is alive, that his father has lied to him, but more so by the realisation, which also comes to Chan, that they are brother and sister and have committed incest. Chan runs screaming from the Palace, and is executed by the ninjas: Jiang follows, and suffers the same fate. The Empress’s Crysanthemum Army attacks. The rapid chaos is compounded when Wan is stabbed through the back by Yu, smiling, overlooked, childish Yu, sickened by the corruption he sees around him, launching his own bid.

But his men are rapidly slaughtered, and the Empress beats him to death with his heavy, gold belt. In the courtyard, shield walls topped by archers are raised around the Crysanthemum Army by a second army, acting on the Emperor’s plans: all except Jai are slaughtered.

The Empress may herself have already gone mad. The Emperor remains in total control. His favourite son is dead. He had intended to make Jai the Crown Prince, and heir, after the Festival in any event. Now Jai is a traitor, to be torn apart among five wild horses. He will be spared on one condition: that he personally feed the Empress her medicine, every day. Jai feigns to accept this condition but uses the chance to seize a sword and cut his own throat. His blood splashes into the medicine, which the Empress knocks away. It falls upon the Crysanthemum sigil at the centre of the table, where it burns…

Phew! I think you will understand what I mean by high melodrama. Some critics at the time categorised the film as just falling short of High Camp.

But this is just a compressed summary relating only the plot and set-up. It can’t give anything of the true flavour of the film. I’ve already used the word opulent, and there is no better description of the look of the film, during the vast majority of its expanse that is set in the Imperial Palace. The film is besplendent in colour, with gold the predominant element, counter-lit by a harmonic dazzle of other bright colours. Even in the relatively intimate quarters of Palace rooms and corridors, and I am using ‘intimate’ solely by way of contrast to the larger halls and the Imperial Courtyards, the Crysanthemum Terrace et al, the sense of size is overwhelming, as is the sheer volume of servants, rows and rows of them in identical dress. And the sheer amount of ritual involved in anything. The film is a massive depiction of a culture that I can’t pretend to even begin to understand: what does it do to someone to be the centre of all that power? What does it do to someone to be at the centre of all that power and to know yourself to be utterly at someone else’s whim?

The spectacle is awe-inspiring and also repulsive. I couldn’t live within that system, at any level from bottom to very top. To have nothing, no individuality, to sense of even limited control over what you do, who you are, what you are, would be impossible for me to survive. I ought to hate this film.

Yet I enjoy it, from the outside, from beyond the screen. It is vast and strange. The emotions it depicts may be human at root, but they are human twisted through things that cannot leave them human, not in terms I can accept. Curse of the Golden Flower does to me what films used to do to everyone in their early decades: it transports me to a time and a place and an existence that I can’t begin to participate in, even if I wanted to.

As for ‘Curse of the Heaving Bosoms’? Well, you only need to look at the female clothing. With the exception of Jiang, all the women in this film, and very notably and noticeably Gong Li, wear tightly bound, stiff-waisted dresses, cut to a line just above the nipples, pushing the top halves of their breasts upwards and outwards, like the ‘inspiration’ for every cheap, crude and completely British tit gag ever cracked – like two bald midgets fighting in a sack’ anyone?

It must have been bloody uncomfortable to wear, but it has its memorable aspects…