Film 2022: The Plank


Plank

Despite being under an hour in length (51 minutes, to be precise), Eric Sykes’ 1967 almost-silent comedy The Plank qualifies as a film. It was made for the cinema and I saw it in the cinema, our local cinema, the Odeon, in Burnage, South Manchester, as support film one afternoon: I cannot for the life of me remember the main film but it would have been something made for kids for I was at best twelve when I saw it.

The Plank was written and directed by the genius that was Eric Sykes, whose own brand of solemn, northern, low-key surreality was a consistent delight for many decades, under the guise of just being ordinary, everyday comedy, no different from any of the run of half-hour sitcoms of the Sixties and Seventies. Sykes co-starred in his film alongside Tommy Cooper and, in a major suporting role, the still populsr Jimmy Edwards, but also a gaggle of faces familiar from the comedy of the Sixties and before, playing numerous cameo roles in a chaotic, slapstick film whose plot was as minimal and mundane as you could wish.

Sykes and Cooper play two workmen, laying a wooden floor in a house being constructed. The room is almost done, but Sykes has cut up and burned the last plank for warmth. The pair have to go to the timberyard for another plank. Their car’s decrepit, the plank is about two and a half times longer than it’s roof and they’ve got to get it back through London traffic and people going about their business…

The film was shot entirely on location, in the streets of Barnes, in South West London. Sykes adapted and extended it from an episode of his BBC sitcom three years earlier, but what it is is a throwing together of every variation you could think of of a ‘man with a plank’ routine. If that makes it old-fashioned, and you can’t seriously argue that it doesn’t, that doesn’t keep it from being extremely funny, especially for those of us who grew up with and upon such things.

Jimmy Edwards plays a Police Constable on a bicycle in Jimmy Edwards manner, Roy Castle has asimilarly substantial supporting role as a Delivery Man who gets chucked into an old-fashioned Corporation dustcart and stinks the place out for the rest of the film. Other people, such as Jimmy Tarbuck, Kenny Lynch, Bill Oddie and Hattie Jacques, get literally only a few seconds, whilst Stratford Johns breaks ranks as a Police Station Sergeant and Graham Stark is cast as an amorous lorry driver trying to get off with an atractive young hitchhiker.

(This last scene no longer sits as well as it originally would have, in the changed sexual atttudes of comedy. It’s a re-run of the lecherous older man acting as predator which has stopped being funny, and given what has been hinted at at Stark’s private proclivities since his death in 2013, his playing the role serves only to lead it further away from the semi-innocent comedy it used to be).

The film is usually thought of as a silent film but that’s far from the case. There is a lot of dialogue, because without it the comedy wuld be left stranded, but there are no funny lines. What’s spoken is mixed down, is trivial, is purely functional, used only to help us understand the pantomime that the film consists of.

It’s incredibly silly, and there’s no real ‘story’ to it, but Sykes’ genius was able to compose a perfect ending in place of a stopping point. Much is made in the eaerly part of the film of the presence of a tiny black-and-white kitten in the house the workmen are building. It even has its own place in the credits as ‘Oh… and the cat’. So Sykes and Cooper get the plank back, they nail it in place, the floor looks perfect, jobs a good ‘un, and to Cooper’s astonishment, Sykes starts tearing the floorboards up, ripping them out, ruining the job – because he thinks the kitten has been trapped underneath them, when it’s actually sat on the stairs, looking at them, cute as a button. What happens next we hardly dare imagine…

In 1979, Sykes re-made The Plank for television, with himself in the Cooper role and Arthur Lowe playing his part. Another host of guests appeared, some of them reprising their old roles, and filmed in many of the original locations. I remember watching it without really registering my memories of the original, and trying to remember if this was what I’d once seen. No, it was a remake, largely hewing to the original, though with at least one new scene, where Charlie Drake appears as a delivery man whose face gets pushed into the cake he’s delivering (did Charlie Drake ever work with a cake that didn’t end up all over hisface?), though as the remake was 28 minutes in comparison to the film’s 51, I don’t know how it could be faithful. I enjoyed it, but a dozen years later, that slapstick style, and the old gags that sustain it, found less contemporary favour.

Sykes did other short films in the vein of The Plank, none of which I’ve seen, none of which have attained the fame, specialist as it may be, of this short and broad comedy. It made me laugh out loud, several times. What more do I ask of a comedy?

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 33 – The Passenger


The Passenger

33: THE PASSENGER (Italian: PROFESSIONE REPORTER): 1975. Director: Michelangelo Antonioni. Italian (English language). Neo-noir Drama. Jack Nicholson. Maria Schneider. Steven Berkoff. Ian Hendry. Jenny Runacre.
Producer: Carlo Punti. Screenplay by Michelangelo Antonioni, Mark Peploe, and Peter Wollen. Music by Ivan Vander. Cinematography by Luciano Tovoli. Edited by Franco Arcalli. Distributor: United Artists. Screen time: 126 minutes. Box office takings: $619,700. Filming was in Algeria, Germany, England, and Spain.
Geoff Andrew, in the Time Out Film Guide, obviously didn’t like Jenny Runacre – oh, come on, was she really that bad? – but he does appreciate this is one of those quiet, unflashy little gems, almost ignored and forgotten in the froth and noise before and since. “Despite the burdensome presence of Runacre in a relatively minor role, this is Antonioni’s finest film for years. With a tense, imaginative script by Peter Wollen (betraying both his interest in structure/structuralism and his past experiences as a political correspondent abroad) that delves in Graham Greene-ish territory, it concerns a TV reporter (Nicholson) who exchanges identity with an acquaintance he finds dead in a North African hotel room, only to find himself hunted not just by mystified wife and friends, but by some rather threatening strangers. At times obscure, the film certainly sags in the middle, while the relationship Nicholson strikes up with Schneider in his bid to escape to a new life seems both a little perfunctory and gratuitous to the central theme. But the film’s opening, charting the burnt-out journalist’s progress through an endless desert, and the final twenty minutes – including a virtuoso seven-minute single take – are stunning.”
Tim Pulleine, in a more general article in Movies of the Seventies, remarks on the links between Antonioni’s earlier, successful, Blow-Up (1966), and the less successful Zabriskie Point of 1970, to finally The Passenger, the last of the three-film contract he had with MGM. Again, as in the previous two films, escape from reality is an illusion. “The locales this time are principally North Africa and Spain, and the framework like that of a mystery thriller. The hero, Locke [Nicholson], is a prominent television figure but a casualty of material success and a man at the end of his tether. Grasping at the chance to start again, he assumes the identity of a man he finds dead in the next room of a shabby hotel in Chad. But this attempted regeneration ultimately proves to be a death sentence: the person he has become is an arms dealer with enemies to spare, and Locke winds up a corpse in another shabby hotel in Algeciras. The extraordinary shot, seven minutes in duration, in which the camera seems to float out of the hotel window and around the little town square outside, serves to encapsulate the impulse behind the entire work, fatalistic yet transcendental…”
Again, I’m not otherwise a fan of Jack Nicholson, but he is very restrained here as a man already losing control of his life, attempting to escape by faking his own death (it was quite a fashionable thing in the 1970s), swapping his identity with that of an unknown stranger, David Robertson. This is not the usual Nicholson – ‘Jack-the-lad’, arrogant, or cocky, or womanizing. Instead, he is a loser, stressed out, his marriage on the rocks, in a much more nuanced role. Both Nicholson and Schneider thought highly of this film – quite rightly. It is a “study of existential alienation”. Initially, I didn’t make the immediate association with Blow-Up, but, in retrospect, the motif is the same – the main protagonist is drained and empty, seeking the futility of escape from a dreary damming reality. But, in the Wollen/Antonioni story, there is no heavy drama. This isn’t the conventional dramatic spy thriller, with shoot-outs and car chases – as some critics seem to have wanted. Even Locke’s assassination is low key, barely more commotion than David Hemming finding the body in Maryon Park. But this is what actually makes this movie so special, rather than just yet another same old, same old. To want an unique piece of film-making to be like everything else out there, is both bizarre and pointless. Blow-Up could have been a detective story with policeman tramping all over Thomas’s studio and Maryon Park. It wasn’t, and more memorable for it. Likewise The Passenger, which is more about the human condition, identity, alienation, and isolation.
Jack Nicholson (born 1937, prominent of that new generation of young, post-studio era actors who came to the fore in the 1960s) played the Anglo-American journalist David Locke, initially attempting – without much success – to contact rebel fighters in Chad. Nicholson’s filmography was from 1958 to 2012. Many of his roles were rather over the top, much like some of his skirt-chasing antics off-screen, with friends like Warren Beatty, Marlon Brando, or Hunter S. Thompson. French actress Maria Schneider (1952-2011) played the unnamed Spanish architecture student Locke meets in Barcelona. She was just credited as ‘The Girl’. Born as Maria-Hélène Schneider, she is probably still best known for her role in the 1972 Bertolucci movie Last Tango in Paris, but which left her emotionally traumatised and, thereafter, hounded by unsavoury publicity. She declined any further nude scenes and acquired a reputation for walking out midway through productions. This, perhaps together with her being a strong advocate for improving working conditions for women in the film industry, blighted her career. Her upbringing was chaotic and fractional, with no proper family life, and she became caught up in the drugs culture of the time, with overdoses and even a suicide attempt. She came out as bisexual in 1974 – again something not really that unusual in Hollywood if you look at the infamous (but secretive) ‘sawing circle’ of female luminaries from the 1940s – but, in the then macho, man-dominated world of the time, was still regarded by many as shocking. Her acting career steadied in the 1980s, and when she died – still too young at the age of 58 from breast cancer – she had gained respect and reverence in the French film world and beyond. Looking at her life, two things are apparent. One is that she, and other actress in Europe and America, were often lone voices calling for the end to sexual exploitation of women in the movie industry. Others, like Cybill Shephard and Kathleen Turner, were deemed trouble-makers or ‘awkward to work with’ because of their demands for gender equality and women’s rights. Sadly, fifty years on, in the 2020s, despite the outing of Weinstein and the MeToo movement, this fight is still on-going, with entrenched money and powerful men still determined to stem the revisionist tide flowing against them. The second point was just how introvert and incestuous the film world was – and probably still is. Maria Schneider and Sylvia Kristel, for instance, and a handful of other young, 1960s/70s actresses whose careers were defined by the new sexual freedoms in moving making, moved in the same circles when it came to be considered for film roles. So we see Jenny Agutter, Jenny Runacre, Linda Blair, Ursula Andress, although Kathleen Turner would eventually win control of appearing nude, and being able to review scripts. The English co-scriptwriter of The Passenger, Mark Peploe (born 1943) was actually the brother-in-law to Bernardo Bertolucci, who had conspired with Brando in the sexual degradation of Schneider’s character Jeanne, in Last Tango in Paris.
The rest of the movie’s principle cast are British – Steven Berkoff, playing Stephen; Ian Hendry playing Locke’s friend and television producer at the BBC, Martin Knight; Jenny Runacre playing Locke’s wife, Rachel Locke, at first guilty about cuckolding him, then discovering Robertson’s photograph in Locke’s passport, and realising her husband is still alive, the real Robertson having been buried in his place. The Spanish hotel was said to be in Osuna, but was actually in Vera, a small town (population of less than 16,000 in 2018) between Cartagna and Almeria, just inland from the Mediterranean coast. Nicholson said Antonioni actually built the hotel, facing into the town square. Certainly the window bars of Locke’s ground floor room were hinged to allow the camera to pass through unobstructed in the continuous shot, which was also carried out in the later afternoon, to minimise the lighting contrast between the room interior and the exterior sweep of the square, there being no opportunity to adjust the lens.
I think I probably saw it on late-night television back in the 1980s, when so many films were being broadcast at that time. Apparently, later, following a dispute with MGM, Nicholson acquired the film rights, meaning it never passed to Warner Brothers following their acquisition of the Turner Entertainment archive. Nicholson subsequently kept the film out of circulation until Sony Pictures Classics tempted him with an offer to restore it.

Film 2022: Tales from Earthsea


tales-from-earthsea-date-2006-K3J17F

I can’t quite decide whether to describe my response to this film as ‘disappointed’ or ‘very disappointed’. Certainly, to some extent, it was influenced by the fact that I am currently re-reading Ursula Le Guin’s complete Earthsea Cycle so am immediately re-familiar with the original stories. The film does not adapt a single novel but rather conflates the third and fourth books as well as dipping into the fifth novel for a major element of its ending, as well as introducing a large element of ‘free adaptation’ in subsitution for a better but less action-filled conclusion.

When Hayao Miyazaki first approach Le Guin for permission to adapt one of her Earthsea books, in the early Eighties, she refused him, associating animation with Disney at that time. Twenty years later, and aware of his work in anime, she accepted a renewed offer, believing he would direct the film. However, Miyazaki was then engaged on Howl’s Moving Castle (which I’ll be seeing later in this season) and the role was handed over to his son, Goro. Believing the younger man to be insufficiently experienced for the task, Hayao objected but was overruled. Though he’s never directly come out and said so, his lack of praise for the film seems to confirm he was not persuaded otherwise, and whilst Le Guin initially suggested she was praising the outcome, she too was disappointed at the direction the film took, especially with regard to the greater emphasis on physical violence, and the concentration of Evil into a single wizard who could be killed to save the day.

Basically, the blurb on the DVD box seemed to suggest the film would be an adaptation of The Farthest Shore, the third and initially final Earthsea book. That it is, at least to an extent, but Goro Moyazaki conflates that story with substantial elements from Tehanu, Le Guin’s return to Earthsea and her reconsideration of the entire series from a female perspective.

In the originals, the stories are immediately sequential, with something of an initial overlap in time, but here they are treated as contemperaneous. Archmage Sparrowhawk’s journey to find out why magic appears to be draining out of Earthsea, accompanied by the young Prince, Arren, is ultimately successful but at the cost of all Sparrowhawk’s wizardry, causing him to return to his home island of Gont, and his attempts to learn a new and very different life, harboured and aided by Tenar and her badly-scarred and burned ward, Therru. Instead, in the film, Sparrowhawk and Arren seek refuge with Tenar and Therru, who become bound up in Sparrowhawk’s quest.

In itself, it works reasonably well, despite the gross departure from the originals. It’s not as mindles as the Dan Dare Audio Adventures but nevertheless it’s massive change. I can see the reason why: The Furthest Shore is an almost entirely masculine book and this brings female characters in in substamtial roles. On the other hand, this mixes two quite separate milieus, created at different times with different mindsets and the fit is not that smooth. It doesn’t help that Tenar in particular is given a mostly passive role, for all that shr’s rightly portrayed as a secure and solid – and important – character, even down to being kidnapped to be damsel-in-distress as bait for Sparrowhawk.

Other changes are more egregious, pointless and left hanging. In the book, Arren is Prince of Enlad, heir to its throne and intended King of all the Islands, sent by his father to the Archmage (pronounced Ark-Mage throughout the film, which kept jerking me out of its reality) to seek aid and to aid as seems best. In the film, he attacks and stabs his father so as to steal his magic sword, for no expressed reason, and he goes home to face justice for the assassination. Why? What purpose in the story does this serve? This is one of the two central characters in his book whose entire character and destiny is reversed.

On one level I can understand removing the back story of Arren becoming the King who unites all of Earthsea. The film does this a lot. The novels are built upon a lot of details, some of which, such as Tenar’s past as a Priestess rescued by Sparrowhawk in The Tombs of Atuan, are alluded to. I have the advantage of knowing the books well – I first read them at School – so I understand them, but they are thinly spread and I wonder if someone entirely knew to the story might simply get confused.

But that’s part of the approach. Blur the details. Don’t go into any depth. Reduce the story into a battle between two wizards, one of whom is seeking eternal life, the other who is sane.

Instead of the metaphysical and philosophical ending of The Farthest Shore, we get a slam bang ending, full of sword battles and crumbling castles. Therru turns into a dragon at the end, just as she does in The Other Wind, and burns up the wizard. There’s a lot of meandering and stretching things out unnecessarily by that point, and a rather petering-out ending where the men go off for their next mission and the women remain on the farm: yes, quite the feminist-sympathetic ending, the Men go, the Women stay.

The English voices all perform well. Timothy Dalton brings c;lasssical training but very litle passion to Sparowhawk, Willem Defoe whispers throughout as the evil wizard Cob and Maritsa Hargitsay was forthright as Tenar, thugh I’d no idea it was her until the credits. As Arren and Therru, Matt Levin and Blair Resteano were ok, he hampered by the blurred nature of his role but both of them conspicuously younger and less forceful: neither have great theatrical experience.

As for the animation, that too was a mixed bag. Some of the film was beautiful, as anime usually is. Backgrounds, landscapes, towns and cities were rendered superbly, the latter a mixture of solidity and ruin, but these were, I was convinced, generated by CGI whilst the characters were traditional animation linework: the disparity between the two textures was too noticeable and contributed to my not being able to sink into the film as I would have liked and as I have done with anime before.

I’m still no nearer to deciding between my two responses, which is probably appropriate. I would dearly love to have seen this film as directed and adapted by the elder Miyazaki than the younger, who was not ready to do the work justice as it deserved. I suppose we’ll have to wait for a truly good adaptation of any part of Earthsea, if one is ever possible.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 32 – Emmanuelle


Emmanuelle

32: EMMANUELLE: 1974. Director: Just Jaeckin. France. Softcore erotic drama. Sylvia Kristel. Alain Cuny. Marika Green. Christine Boisson. Daniel Starky.
Screenplay by Jean-Louis Richard, adapted from the 1967 novel Emmanuelle, by ‘Emmanuelle Arsan’, non-de-plume for Marayat Rollet-Andriane, but actually written by her husband, Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane. The novel had previously been published without an author name and distributed clandestinely in 1959. It was later published in English in 1971 by Mayflower Books. Cinematography by Robert Fraisse. Sound-track: Pierre Bachelet. Producer: Yves Roussef-Rouard, who obtained the film rights in 1972. Just Jaeckin (born 1940) was a photographer and this his first time as movie director. Screen-time: 90 minutes. It was filmed between December 1973 and February 1974 in Thailand, interior scenes shot in Paris. Dubbed into English for the US, box office takings there were said to be $11.5million. In France, theatrical admissions were 8,893,996.
On my first, and last ever, camping holiday to Cornwall with my first wife and a couple from Yorkshire, we went to the local cinema one evening and watched Emmanuelle, in an audience comprised mostly of men, Judith and my wife the only women. Even with cuts, it treads the uneasy line between pornography and the erotic. At first it seemed that the basic plot motif is not unlike that of Belle de Jour – a young, attractive wife (in the movie that of a diplomat flying out to join her husband in Bangkok) exploring her, hitherto latent, sexuality – first with a casual hook-up with two men on the aeroplane (did that start the ‘mile-high club’?), then with both men and women. As the original book was supposedly written by ‘Emmanuelle Arsan’, at the time it seemed to be about female sexual liberation, a movie hymn to the permissive society. However, given what is now known about the true author – a French diplomat who was based in Thailand in the 1950s – it was more about the sexual shenanigans he and his, much younger, Thai wife got up with the expats in Bangkok at that time. This is the secret Thailand of privileged foreigners, long before it became the cheap and cheerful package holiday destination for the mediocrity. In the book Emmanuelle is aged 19, flying to Thailand to join her husband Jean, who is an engineer. She subsequently meets Ariane de Saynes, a 30-year-old French countess – married with male lovers – a young girl, Marie-Anne; Bee, sister to a naval attaché at the US Embassy; and finally Mario, an Italian nobleman, who is probably homosexual. In the book, Emmanuelle may already be bi-sexual, with previous lesbian lovers. It would seem that the Just Jaeckin movie, featuring the Dutch model and actress Sylvia Kristel, was quite faithful to the book. In time, there were two ‘official’ sequels, Emmanuelle II, aka The Joys of a Woman (1975); and Emmanuelle 3, aka Goodbye Emmanuelle (1977). What could they add, except more of the same as far as the sexual couplings were concerned, and little else for originality? As far as I can recollect, I’ve not seen either of them, nor had any desire to do so. As it was, there subsequently followed a steady stream of ever more ridiculous and, no doubt, sordid rip-offs of the Emmanuelle ‘brand’ for the next twenty years; none, I would suggest, worth wasting time upon – Emmanuelle Forever, A Man for Emmanuelle, Emmanuelle’s Perfume, Emmanuelle in Tibet, Emmanuelle’s Revenge, Emmanuelle’s Magic, until perhaps the most idiotic of them all, Emmanuelle in Space – need I say more?
Upon reflection, however, Emmanuelle of the book and film had little in common with Catherine Deneuve’s afternoons-only hooker in Belle de Jour, whose sexploits are more discreet – not to say, also more chastely portrayed. In less than a decade, times had changed in what could be depicted in movies; full, frontal nudity and copulation were no longer taboo, or simply to be implied. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) had thrown aside any decorum or modesty. Stimulated penetration was now the new norm. European movie-makers (almost exclusively men) were eager to exploit this apparent freedom, but at what cost to women still being in control, as either film characters or the actresses playing them? Increasingly, Emmanuelle (and, by default, Sylvia Kristel) becomes, less in control, more the plaything of her husband and the Italian aristocrat Mario. Even Kristel apparently became disturbed by some of sex scenes as filmed of her with Thai men. In the light of the MeToo movement or women’s struggle against exploitation since, Emmanuelle at times can make for uncomfortable viewing, although no more so than perhaps the real ‘pioneer’ of mainstream-meets-soft-porn – Last Tango in Paris with Marlon Brando (1924-2004) and 19 year old French actress Maria Schneider (1952-2011), who was definitely abused on camera by her powerful, influential co-star and director Bertolucci (1941-2018). On the other hand, Emmanuelle certainly don’t do Kristel’s acting career any harm – quite the opposite! In addition to starring in the first three Emmanuelle movies, her filmography totalled 50 films from 1973 to 2010, although perhaps many were more memorable for their often rather racy titles, than being first class cinema. To take examples: Game of Seduction (1976); Tigers in Lipstick (1979, with Ursula Andress and Monica Vitti – the blonde Italian actress who featured in the 1966 Modesty Blaise movie); The Nude Bomb (1980); Love in First Class (also 1980); Private Lessons; and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (both 1981); Private School (1983); Mata Hari (1985); Red Heat (1985, with Linda Blair); Dracula’s Widow (also 1985): Beauty School (1993); Sexy Boys (2001). In addition she reappraised Emmanuelle again in Emmanuelle 4 (1983), and Emmanuelle 7, made another ten years later in 1993. She obviously thrived on this edgy CV of the actress who shed both inhibitions and clothes, although often gullible in monetary rewards, and at the price of her physical well-being.
Sylvia Maria Kristel (1962-2012), was born in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and was a model at age 17. She could speak Dutch, English, German, French and Italian. In 1972 she unsuccessfully auditioned for Last Tango in Paris. In 1973 she won the Miss TV Europe contest. In the 1970s she was associated with directors Claude Chabrol and Roger Vadim. She apparently rejected roles in The Story of Adele H. (1975); the remake of King Kong (1976); Logan’s Run (1976, so presumably the Jenny Agutter role); Caligula (1979); Body Heat (1982, the Kathleen Turner role); and Dune (1984). She had a rather turbulent life, with addictions to cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, and a tendency for destructive relationships with older men. In 1979 she lived with British actor Ian McShane for five years in Hollywood. She was twice married and eventually died of lung cancer. Reputedly, she attended the audition for the role of Emmanuelle with Just Jaeckin wearing a dress held in place by a string-like strap, which ‘accidentally’ broke, causing the dress to fall away, but she just carried on with the interview. Obviously suitably impressed, Jaeckin then photographed her nude, and she got the part! So that’s how to do it.
Seen in isolation to the inferior rip-off rubbish that followed, the original Emmanuelle movie isn’t that bad – risqué, exotic, as well as erotic. What did it do, long-term, for Thai tourism, I wonder? It is typically European – at that time probably only the French, Italians or Scandinavians could pull this off – no British or American director or producer could, or would, have dared. It upends conventional morality, and especially with – as I thought of it at the time I first watched it – the very Marquis de Sade-like lecturing dialogue from Mario (played by French actor Alain Cuny, 1941-1994), who becomes Emmanuelle’s proactive mentor, as well as mouthpiece for the ‘do what thou wilt’ sexual philosophy. The aristocratic Mario (based on the Italian Prince ‘Dado’ Ruspoli) probably gives the book – certainly the film – that gloss of intellectual justification for wanton sexual freedom and licentiousness, that would otherwise have reduced the story to mere purposeless humping. So, in retrospect, Emmanuelle is not a great film, nor a classic, although I would argue that the much over-hyped and critic-praised Last Tango in Paris is no less challenging and uncomfortable to watch, and perhaps (if we have to choose between Bangkok and Paris) the former is rather more interesting.
In 1978 the Italian artist Guido Crepax (1933-2003) published his graphic novel interpretation of the book. Crepax (whose most famous erotic comic book creation was the Louise Brooks-like Valentina, from 1965 to 1980), had also illustrated graphic novels of The Story of O (1975, by ‘Pauline Réage, pen-name of Anne Desclos), and the Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1979). What we now know of the actual author, Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andrione, is he was a French diplomat with the UNESCO mission in Bangkok, who (in 1948, then aged 30) met the then-16 year old Marayat Krasaesin, birth-name Bididh (1932-2005), the young daughter of an aristocratic Siamese (Thai) family. They eventually married in 1956. The novel Emmanuelle is, therefore, a fictionalised version of their joint sexual adventures whilst living in Thailand. Later, from 1963-68 Louis-Jacques was based in Italy, alternating between Rome and Venice, and thereafter, until 1980, between Paris and Bangkok. Finally retiring to the south of France (in the Var), they were joined by Louis-Jacques’ former mistress, Nitya Phoekun, supposedly as secretary, but apparently living together as a ménage à trois until Marayat died first, in 2005, then Louis-Jacques in 2008, after which Nitya returned back to Thailand, having inherited the Emmanuelle copyright.
This is Chris Petit, in the Time Out Film Guide: “Very glossy, very French voyage into sexual discovery that mingles cliché and elegant posturing with an attempt to broaden the horizons of the sex film. As such, it looks like a softcore version of The Story of O commissioned by Vogue magazine.”

Film 2022: Barbarella


Barbarella

Though it’s not mentioned anywhere is the film, the events of roger Vadim’s Barbarella, adapted from Jean-Claude Foret’s French SF strip, are supposed to be taking place in the year 40,000. That’s nonsense: every second of the film’s 94 minute length is taking place in 1968, and doesn’t it just show?

I’ve seen this film two or three times before, on television, and I’ve always previously enjoyed it, for the very reason you’re supposed to enjoy it, namely Jane Fonda in various stages of skimpy and tight-fitting superheroine outfits. The film makes no bones about its subject in the credits sequence, in which Fonda executes a slow, supposedly zero gravity striptease, until she is completely naked (filmed by turning the set upside down, suspending the camera from the ceiling and Fonda writhing around on a glass sheet). Fonda naked is by no means an unpleasant sight, especially as the artfully produced credits, which flutter round the screen as individual letters, don’t do anything like as assiduous a job of covering up her breasts as they’re supposed to.

But the sequence tells you what you are to expect from the film and, without fail, it lives down to that expectation thereafter. Everyone, from the moment of its release, has criticised the story and I’m not going to be different in that respect. To be frank, there isn’t a story, or at least only a very perfunctory one as an excuse to hang scenes together: I’ve followed sheep trails with a greater sense of purpose.

But to criticise Barbarella on those grounds is to criticise it for not being something it never had any intention of being. Producer Dino de Laurentis was never interested in anything except spectacle on a shoestring budget – the special effects in the film would be put to shame by the average episode of Thunderbirds – whilst Vadim was dazzled by the flash and dazzle of comics, the leaps of wild imagination, unrestricted by things like rationality, plausibility or sense. What they made was what they intended to make and in that respect the film was a raging success. And popular with it.

The story is utterly simplistic. Barbarella, an interstellare space agent, is sent by the President of Earth, to retrieve scientist Durand Durand (pronounced Duran Duran, which is how they got their name and why it can no longer be taken remotely seriously in the film) who has invented a deadly weapon. Barbarella crash-lands in the Tau Ceti system, which is devoted to Evil and is decadent, decadent here meaning that lots of the women bare their breasts, except for Barbarella and the Black Queen, played by then-Keith Richard girlfriend Anita Pallenberg but voiced by Joan Greenwood (not Fenella Fielding as I’d long believed).

Barbarella has a number of adventures, involving her costume changing every ten to fifteen minutes and/or sex. In fact, why say anything more? What there is of the story is the cheapest of space opera with none of the imagination or wit possible in SF, just cliches in character and situation. There’s Marcel Marceau in his first and most majot speaking role. Pallenberg and Greenwood camp it up. John Philip Law for some reason gets second billing as the blind angel, Pygar, whose blindness came over as a convenience to disguise his lack of any acting skills by having him stare off into the distance with no facial responses at any time. Durand Durand wss played by Milo O’Shea, then best known for co-starring in the long-forgotten BBC sitcom Me Mammy, alongside Yootha Joyce.

Worst of all is David Hemmings, making a Spcial Guest Appearance as Leader of the Revolution Dildano, and if the name doesn’t set your teeth on edge with its utter poverty, the scene itself basically destroyed what enjoyment there was to be had aboutbthe film up till then. It’s overlong, badly acted, shoddy in both inspiration and portrayal and bereft of any idea of what it’s supposed to be about. By the time that was over I was just wvaiting for the film to end.

Is there anything good about this film? Yes, there is, and it’s Jane Fonda. Though even that’s not without one wholly unexpected drawback.

Given what we know of her later career, and especially her strong feminist beliefs, it’s unusual to see Fonda playing a role that is nothing more than sex symbol. Brigitte Bardot turned it down for that very reason, Sophia Loren was pregnant. Fonda was Vadim’s wife. She was, undeniably, stunningly gorgeous. But she was also bulimic, hating her body, unable to accept how lovely she was, and her own husband was having her walk around near naked or often fully naked on set all day. She had no feel for the character, choosing to play her as a kind of holy innocent, a naif being introduced to sex the old-fashioned way and enjoying it, but essentially divorced from it. Fonda’s Barbarella was an improbable top-drawer agent because everything she encountered was new, strange, confusing, she was always getting knocked out or captured, she never initiated any step but merely reacted, escaping either through luck or the efforts of others, except for one crazy scene in which she burned out a machine designed to kill her by over-stimulating her sex responses, only she was too hot for it (Fonda did it all with her face and some brilliantly applied sweat and she was… well, let’s not go into that).

No, as written, Barbarella was no heroine, in fact she was a joke. Centre of the film she was but this was still a deeply limited, entirely chauvinistic film from the immediately pre-Women’s Lib era, when a chick’s freedom was strictly letting all and sundry see her tits and her knickers. For a futuristic film, it was completely incapable of escaping its time, any more than the original Star Trek could, with its mid-Fifties, middle-America morals.

And on a purely personal level, the film was dealt a fatal blow from the moment Fonda first opened her mouth, and again in practically every like of dialogue. I am currently bigeing my way through Bewitched and even if she wasn’t doing it deliberately, Fonda’s voice, it’s tone and range, was practically channeling Elizabeth Montgomery! It was seriously distracting to constant feel that Samantha Stevens was playing Barbarella (though it wouldn’t have hurt seeing her in some of those… oh, to hell with it, all of those costumes)

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 31 – The Italian Job


Italian Job

31: THE ITALIAN JOB: 1969. Director: Peter Collinson. UK. Comedy crime caper. Michael Caine. Noël Coward. Benny Hill. Raf Williams. Tony Beckley. Rossano Brazzi. Maggie Blye.
Written by Troy Kennedy Martin (1932-2009), Scottish-born film and television writer, known for his television police (1962-78) series Z-Cars, and the drama serial Edge of Darkness (1985). His filmography was from 1968 to 2004, television from 1958 to 1999. His brother Ian Kennedy Martin wrote another successful police drama series, The Sweeney, 1975-78. Edited by John Trumper. Producer: Michael Deeley. Production by Oakhurst Production. Distributors: Paramount Pictures. Music by American composer Quincy Jones (born 1933). Screen time: 99 minutes. Budget: $3million. Box office: £113,867. It was not popular in the USA, apparently due to a bad publicity campaign, and not much loved by the critics at the time, but has since evolved into almost cult status, not least for featuring Caine, Coward and Benny Hill, the car chase, and the ambiguous ending. Michael Caine played Charlie Croker, reappraising his small-time Cockney crook, who is taking on a heist a bit above and beyond his league. Thus Croker is a bit like Harry Dean in Gambit (1966). Noël Coward (1899-1973), playwright, composer, singer and character actor, played the criminal mastermind, Mr Bridger. Because Coward was a tax exile (his English patriotism didn’t extend to contributing to our well-being), he couldn’t film in the UK, so his interior prison scenes were filmed at Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Benny Hill (1924-1992), comedian, actor, singer, writer, played quirky computer expert, Professor Simon Peach. Hill was best known for his long-running television series, The Benny Hill Show (1955-1989), a mixture of old-time slapstick, mime, parody, scantily-clad girl-chasing and double entendre. The Peach character, with his purchase for pinching girls’ bottoms, fits into this persona perfectly. Other cast include Raf Vallone as the mafia boss Altabani; Tony Beckley as Camp Freddie; American actress Maggie Blye (1942-2006) as Charlie’s girlfriend Lorna; Rossano Brazzo as Roger Beckerman, who originally dreamed up the heist; John Le Mesurier (1912-1983) as the prison governor; Irene Handl (1901-1987) as Miss Peach; Fred Emney (1900-1980), British comedy character actor, as Birkinshaw; Stanley Caine (1935-2013, Michael’s brother) as Coco. He also played alongside Michael in minor parts in Billion Dollar Brain (1967) and Play Dirty (1968). Another minor cast member was Radio DJ Simon Dee (1935-2009), real name Cyril Nicholas Hentry-Dodd.
On location, we have already noted Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, but the prison exterior is HMP Wormwood Scrubs, Du Cane Road, London W12, a favourite exterior film location. Charlie’s home is Denbigh Close, Notting Hill, W11. Other scenes are at Lancaster Hotel, Bayswater, and Crystal Palace Sports Centre at Upper Norwood, south London. The Turin traffic control building was actually Apex House, Hanworth, then the head office of the television rental chain (long since defunct) Domestic Electric Retails (DER). This was a distinctive three-sided 1960s modernist office block on Hampton Road West, at the junction/roundabout of Twickenham Road, Hampton Road, Staines Road and the Great Chertsey Road (before the M3 flyover sliced through in the 1970s), and which I passed countless times on the bus when I worked at nearby Feltham, from 1966 to 1983. It was demolished in 1994. The various locations in and around Turin include the Villa Della Regina; the Piazza di Citta (scene of the robbery); the Palazzo Carignano; the steps of the Gran Magre di Dio; the roof of the Palazzo a Vela, built for the Italia Expo 1961. Permission to film here was refused, but Peter Collinson reputedly told the crew to go ahead anyway, then made himself scarce! Likewise the Fiat factory Lingotto building rooftop stunt (by ‘stunt king’ Rémy Julienne) was so potentially dangerous that producer Michael Deeley had a ‘getaway’ car on standby. In the event of an accident he planned to get to the airport and fly out straightway, figuring better to be back in England than in an Italian jail! Another dangerous stunt was driving across the weir on the River Po (just down from the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele I in central Turin) – the current was strong and there was moss on the river bed. Julienne used tyres with spikes for grip. However, the sewer tunnel exit was Sowe Valley, near Coventry. Other scenes were filmed at the St. Bernard Pass and Cagnes, in the south of France. The final ‘cliff-hanger’ scene was filmed near Ivrea, Piedmont, the Via Lago Agnel, leading to the Nivolet Pass, which actually does not lead to either France or Switzerland, being a dead end. Two concrete barriers were removed for the coach to dangled on the edge, and apparently were still where they were left at least up until the 1990s. However, again the coach interior shots were at Twickenham Studio, back in England.
Producer Michael Deeley was apparently not satisfied with the various options for the film’s ending, and the abrupt, but literal, cliff-hanger many found rather disconcerting, although potentially it was a good set-up for a sequel; which, however, was never made. Michael Caine also disliked the ending, and even later suggested how Charlie Croker might have up-righted the coach, by running the engine for four hours until the petrol was used up. The gang members would get out, but the gold went over the precipice. In 2008 the Royal Society of Chemistry suggested another alternative. Deflate the front tyres, smash the heavy window glass and drain the fuel tank to change the weight ratio, then place rocks at the front of the bus. Once it was stable again, unload the gold, before hijacking a passing vehicle to escape. The end was certainly unexpected, but has since helped make the film into a cult classic, whilst being spoofed and parodied even since, even in The Simpsons. In 2012, the artist Richard Wilson exhibited Hang On A Minute, Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea (the final Michael Caine/Charlie Croker quote), with a replica bus teetering on the rooftop of the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex.
Which brings us to the other ‘stars’ of the movie – the vehicles. With the exception of addition vehicles acquired in Switzerland and Italy, the vehicles were all driven over from the UK to Italy, and (those that survived) back again. The coach used in the Alpine adventure was a Harrington Legionnaire Bedford VAL 14, registration ALR 453B. After filming it was sold and returned to being a school bus in School, after which – sadly, with no thought to its cinematic heritage – it was scrapped in 1990. In a 2019 BBC TV Top Gear programme, one of the English stunt drivers, David Salamone, recounted how his mother drove one of the ‘E’ type Jaguars, and his then girlfriend one of the Mini Coopers, from England to Turin. Later, he, Barry Cox and Richard Essame – all young 20-year-olds – drove the surviving Minis (there were at least ten originally) back from Italy. In the UK, however, Cox was stopped for speeding, in a car with a fake registration plate and tax disc, and apparently a boot full of gold bars. Naturally unaware of the film in process, he was straightway arrested! Such were the stunts being planned in Kennedy Martin’s script, that top European stunt driver Rémy Julienne and his team were brought in – as Salamone confessed, they were “in a different league”. Although the Minis were stripped down, they had standard engines, and were “fun and manoeuvrable” – “like go-karts”, but had “dodgy handbrakes” – a feature I can confirm the time my first wife hired a brand-new Mini to drive from West London to Scotland and back. After driving along what was supposed to be an ‘A’ road coming back south from Fort William, but roadworks and torrential rain had turned into driving through a muddy field, we pulled up onto the sloping driveway of a B&B stopover, she applied the handbrake, and it just rolled backwards – the brake cable had snapped! Kennedy Martin chose Minis because they were both quintessential British and then the symbol of the 1960s. Ironically manufacturer British Leyland was only prepared to offer six Mini Coopers at trade price, whereas their Italian arch rivals supplied the stunt drivers, allowed access to the Fiat rooftop test track at Lingotto, and put up $50,000 to the production costs. Which company had the better PR? Not all the vehicles survived, of course, including the 1954 ex-Post Office Morris van filmed at Crystal Palace Park, that inspired the famous Michael Caine line, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” Yet again, the actual explosion really was greater than anticipated, breaking a number of windows nearby. Apparently the film crew promptly did a runner! Another casualty was the Austin Martin DB4 which was supposed to explode after being pushed over the cliff. Instead it blew up prematurely, necessitating a frantic search for a replacement. Eventually, with the filming schedule looming, a Lancia Flaminia 36 was acquired, stripped down and mocked up to look similar to a DB4, and that went over the cliff instead – only for the wreckage to have vanished the following day, presumably scavenged by the locals. The two ‘E’ types, one 1961, the coupé from 1962, were originally purchased for £900 each. Both were later restored and the coupé is said to be in a private collection. One of the Fiat Dino Coupés used in the film by the ‘mafia top brass’, was later purchased by director Michael Collinson. As an example of movie licence, it has since been calculated that, with the 1968 cost of gold being $38.69 per troy ounce, $4milllion of gold would be the equivalent of 3,200kg or 7,000lbs. Therefore, to transport by the Mini Coopers, that would mean 1,070kg (2,300lbs) each, plus the additional weight of the driver and passenger. The weight of the 1968 cars being used was 630kg (1,400lbs), so each Mini would be carrying one and a half times its own weight in gold alone! By the physics it’s just not doable!
Again, The Italian Job is not included in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, although the editor finds room for Planet of the Apes, The Producers, and even If…., all 1968 – how many people now remember, or want to watch, the Lindsay Anderson movie? Paul Taylor, in a later review for the Time Out Film Guide, is brief, but comparatively complimentary: “The planning and execution of a Turin bullion heist take, for once, a back seat to the stunt-riddled getaway (subsequently pastiched, after numerous TV screenings of the film, by at least one car commercial). As a modest fun movie, it works, much helped by deep casting contrasts and a nice sense of absurd proportions from scriptwriter (and Z Cars originator) Troy Kennedy Martin.”
And, for me, this is its enduring quality. It is one of those 1960s, very British, comedy caper movies, whose humour is often incomprehensible to many non-Brits, including Americans, rather in the original The Ladykillers mode – a gang of criminal incompetents who almost pull it off. It is light-hearted, silly, but entertaining and fun, as well as again now being a window onto that period – clothes, cars, interiors, exteriors, pre-mobile phones or the worldwide web. Latterly, post-2016, the film has become revised as something of a jingoistic, flag-waving, Brexit favourite – not helped by Brexit supporter Michael Caine, with his idiotic “Better to be poor, but free!” nonsense, from a now elderly movie actor whose own wealth or freedom has never been under threat – unlike the rest of us, who have helped make him rich and successful. Certainly there does exist an uncomfortable underlying subplot of ‘we bashed Johnny Foreigner’: English criminal gangs vs. the Italian mafia, bumbling incompetent Italian cops outsmarted by Charlie Croker’s gang of young hoodlums. But at the time Fiat were more cooperative than British Leyland, and bizarrely, in the clips where Mr Bridger celebrates the successful heist in prison, the prison inmates are Southern Irish extras shouting “England! England!” in a former prison (closed in 1924) where Irish Republican Nationalist martyrs were once executed by the British.
In his article celebrating the film’s fiftieth anniversary, in the May 23rd/29th 2019 edition of The New European, Roger Domeneghetti attempted to rebalance this post-Brexit, anti-European interpretation. He points out that, at the time of its release, it “was just one in a long line of heist movies produced in that era. The popular and profitable sub-genre included films such as Topkapi [1964, with Peter Ustinov], How to Steal a Million [1966, Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole] and even The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery, whose title aped the real life robbery in 1963 that captured the imagination of the public and film makers alike.” However, he concedes, “The Italian Job has risen above its contemporaries and has repeatedly been voted one of the best, if not the best, British film of all time.” He attributes this lofty accolade to be “Thanks to its bright paisley colour pallet and kitsch iconography [so] the film has come to epitomise the Swinging Sixties, or at least an idealised version of the decade.” The first change to the original concept came when Ian Kennedy Martin tried to interest the BBC in the idea of a television play, set in London. When they showed little interest, he sold the rights to older brother Troy, who saw the better potential as a movie, and moved the main action to Turin. Domeneghetti takes up his persuasive counter-argument: “As Troy Kennedy Martin was starting work on the new film script, British identity was in flux. That identity had long been defined in contrast to Europe. An imperial world view that often treated its continental neighbours with aloofness, even belligerence, was only reinforced by that empire’s solitary resistance to the Nazis in the early days of the Second World War. By the late 1960s, the empire was dissolving into the Commonwealth and Britain’s economic and political status was on the wane. By contrast, the European Economic Community, a forerunner of the European Union, was on the up and as Britain made several, initially rejected, attempts to join, the country was starting to have to think of itself not on the edge but as part of Europe. It was a change of mindset that would not come easily and one that is seemingly resisted in The Italian Job. The soundtrack speaks of ‘the Self Preservation Society’ suggesting of a nation determined to remain independent, while the ship that takes the gang across the Channel is called The Free Enterprise. Most obviously the getaway cars were iconically British Minis painted red, white and blue, which the film producer, Michael Deeley, said ‘obviously made a statement about “us” and “them”’. Some 30 years later, when lamenting that a 2003 remake was to be set in Los Angeles, Deeley went further, arguing: ‘It misses the entire point of the 1969 film, which was about us kicking the European ass. It was the first Eurosceptic film.’
“But that is not how it was originally conceived by Kennedy Martin when he was building on his younger brother’s idea. Heavily involved in left-wing politics, he saw the story as both a satire on Britain’s relationship with the Common Market and a hard-edged political and social commentary. ‘Europe was kind of in flames in 1968,’ he would later say, ‘Revolution was happening everywhere especially among young people like myself.’ That this more subversive side to The Italian Job has long been overlooked is down to Peter Collinson’s light-touch direction, which obscured the more biting satire of British chauvinism in the script, allowing the film to instead become a celebration of British superiority. Thus, to fully understand The Italian Job the creative tension of Kennedy Martin’s and Collinson’s competing visions must be considered. It reflected the antagonism between the Europhile and Eurosceptic approaches to Britain’s relationship with the EEC in the years immediately before membership, antagonism that continued through to the 2016 referendum campaign and has only become more stark since. And while Leavers…might claim the film for their side of the argument, you don’t need to scratch too much below the surface to detect Kennedy Martin’s critique. Look beyond Collinson’s focus on capering and it becomes a somewhat different film. Mr Bridger, the criminal godfather played by Noël Coward who ultimately bankrolls the robbery, is a patriotic isolationist distrustful of Johnny Foreigner. Strains of Rule Britannia! can be heard whenever he is on screen, his cell is decorated with photographs of the Queen and he expresses displeasure that some of the younger prisoners are not standing for the national anthem. Yet he spends the whole film behind bars. He is imprisoned, isolated from the outside world. Croker, unlike Bridger, is not motivated by xenophobic patriotism. On the contrary, he wants to break free of the rigid class-based strictures of British society any way he can. Indeed, when he appeal for backing is initially rebuffed by Bridger, Croker considers taking his plan to the Americans who, he says, ‘recognise young talent and give it a chance.’ The plan for the robbery is not Croker’s. Instead it is the brainchild of an Italian criminal, Roger Beckermann, who is murdered by the Mafia in the opening minutes. Croker has no qualms in fully embracing his European colleague’s plans. Ultimately Croker exploits Bridger’s bluff xenophobic Euroscepticism to gain his support. He offers him the chance to take back control by imploring: ‘This is important; four million dollars, Europe, the Common Market, Italy, the Fiat car factory!’ Furthermore, the film’s production belies the notion of the independent ‘self-preservation society’. Far from a wholly British endeavour, it was actually the result of a union of European talent. The Minis were designed by Greek born émigré Alec Issigonis and were driven by Belgian stunt team L’Equipe Rémy Julienne. While the cars’ manufacturers, the British Motor Company, offered no support, backing from Turin-based Fiat was fulsome. Kennedy Martin’s original ending had the gang making it to Switzerland only to find the Mafia waiting for them. However, Deeley conceived the cliffhanger to cut costs and facilitate a sequel which was ultimately never mind. In doing so, he had unwittingly created an denouement which is a perfect metaphor for the current [2019] state of the Brexit process.
“As the camera pans away and the credit music kicks in, Croker and his gang are left teetering on a cliff edge with no Plan B and the gold tantalisingly beyond their grasp. If they get out of the vehicle and return to safety, they will lose their prize. However, the more they reach for it, the more likely they are to go tumbling with it into the abyss.”
Alas – as remarked above – in 2003, it was yet another great classic non-American movie to be remade and murdered by uncomprehending Hollywood – director F. Gary Gray, starring Mark Wahiberg and Charlize Theron, with the action moved to L.A. and Venice. It would appear to be more bloodthirsty, no humour, with killings, so just another US crime action thriller… Yawn. Only the Charlie Croker and Bridger name survived the transaction. 110 minutes long, the budget was $60million, and box office was $176.1million, so American audiences – ignorant of, or uncomprehending, the original – obviously loved it. It was described as “two hours of mindless escapism”, but why not just write a completely new mindless story with a different title? Why even bother? But it was part of the revivalist trend of the time to take good 1960s-era movies (with great actors) and ‘reboot’ them, as the expression goes, into basically dull-witted, inferior ‘team film’ remakes – example: The Thomas Crown Affair (remade 1999, original with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, 1968); and Oceans Eleven, remake 2001, original with the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin/Sammy Davis Jr., 1960.
Finally, in February 2021, Paramount are proposing a television sequel series of Crocker’s grandchildren presumably trying to find where the gold is hidden. Again, yawn. Oh, do we really care?

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 30 – The Devil Rides Out


Devil Rides

30: THE DEVIL RIDES OUT/aka THE DEVIL’S BRIDE: 1968. Director: Terence Fisher. UK. Horror/Supernatural. Christopher Lee. Charles Gray. Niké Arrighi. Leon Greene. Patrick Mower. Sarah Lawson. Paul Eddington.
A Hammer Film Production, adapted by American author and screenwriter Richard Matheson (1926-2013), from the 1934 Dennis Wheatley novel The Devil Rides Out. Screen time: 96 minutes. Matheson specialised in the fantasy/horror/science fiction genre, both as novelist and scriptwriter. He wrote the 1954 novel I am Legend. He worked on many major television series from the 1950s to 70s, including Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone. He also worked with film-maker Roger Corman. Originally proposed in 1963, it was only after censorship laws were eased on depicting Satanism that the project went ahead. Filming started in August 1967. Christopher Lee regarded it as perhaps his favourite work, and apparently lamented he would have like to have done a remake with modern special effects. Wheatley, who was critical of other attempts to film his novels, apparently liked it enough (given the restraints and compromises between a lengthy novel and a watchable movie), that he gave Christopher Lee a first edition copy of the novel.
Here’s Kim Newman on the website empireonline.com: “A spirited bit of demon-busting, with a solid Richard Matheson script that streamlines Dennis Wheatly’s once-popular but deeply stodgy novel into a pacey occult thriller. This is a more ambitious effort than the average Hammer horror film. Christopher Lee is cast against type in the Van Helsing role of the heroic, authoritarian goateed wise man who clashes with Charles Gray’s suave, sneaky Satanist. Set in the 1920s rather than the 1880s, it has a Bulldog Drummond touch as heroes dash about the Home Counties in period cars while decedent aristocrats worship the goat-headed one in decorous mass rituals. The exotic-looking Niké Arrighi is Tanith, predestined to be groped and stabbed on the black altar by the villain, and there’s an early example of the revoked plot development as she is killed, then resurrected when white magic rolls back time to provide a happy ending. Terence Fisher, the most prolific of Hammer’s in-house directors, does especially well underlining the religious aspects of the epic conflict. As often happens, an inadequate but heroic hunk (Leon Greene) was dubbed by voice-of-the-week Patrick Allen, but the two-fisted secondary hero still spends most of the film being patronised or shouted at (‘You fool, Rex!’) by the pompous Duc. In an unforgettable climax the heroes (including Sarah Lawson and a young Paul Eddington) huddle in a magic circle while demon entities rage all around and Lee barks out magic gibberish (‘the Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual’) to see off the skull-headed Fourth Horseman…With the classic team of Lee and Hammer Horror you know this is set to be a classic whether for being good or even being bad. Thankfully it most definitely falls into the former category, with Lee giving a memorable and unusual performance as the sorcerer, the hero of the film.”
And this is David Pirie for the Time Out Film Guide: “Over the years, this film’s reputation has grown enormously, and its cult status must be as high as any horror movie. Richard Matheson, who scripted it, was able to improve immeasurably on Dennis Wheatley’s ponderous novel, and it is consequently the best film Fisher and Hammer ever made, an almost perfect example of the kind of thing that can happen when melodrama is achieved so completely and so imaginatively that it ceases to be melodrama at all and becomes a full-scale allegorical vision. Christopher Lee has never been better than as the grim opponent of Satanism, and the night in the pentacle during which the forces of evil mobilise an epic series of cinematic temptations rediscovers aspects of mythology which the cinema had completely overlooked.”
The cast are as follows: Nicholas, Duc De Richleau – Christopher Lee (1922-2015), best known for his Hammer Film Dracula movies; Star Wars; and the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun. His filmography from 1947 to 2015.
Former Canon Damien Mocata – Charles Gray (1928-2000), character actor specialising in villains, his filmography 1958 to 1998. He played arch-villain Blofeld in the James Bond movie Diamond Are Forever.
Tanith Carlisle – Niké Arrighi (born 1947), French artist and former actress, her filmography is from 1967 to 1989. This was her first movie.
Rex Van Ryn – Leon Greene (born 1931), actor and opera singer. His filmography 1965 to 1989.
Simon Aron – Patrick Mower (born 1938), actor, filmography 1968-2000, television work 1964 to now.
Richard Eaton – Paul Eddington (1927-1985), actor, filmography 1956 to 1974, best known for television performances, in The Good Life, and Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister.
Peggy Eaton – Rosalyn Landor (born 1958), filmography 1968 to 1990. Worked in the USA from the 1980s.
Marie Eaton – Sarah Lawson (born 1928), actress, filmography 1951 to 1978. Later television work.
Countess d’Urfe – Gwen Ffrangcom-Davies (1891-1992), actress, limited filmography 1936 to 1970, mostly stage work until 1970, television and radio thereafter.
The Goat of Mendes at the Salisbury Plain sabbath was played by Eddie Power, Christopher Lee’s stunt double in the 1958 movie Dracula.
Dennis Yeats Wheatley (1897-1977) was a prolific novelist, extremely popular from the 1930s to 60s. He wrote 52 novels, of which eleven featured the Duc De Richleau; political thrillers mostly, between 1933 and 1970, Forbidden Territory, set in the Soviet Union, being his first published work. Another eleven featuring spy Gregory Sallust, from 1934 to 1968, the first being Black August, Wheatley’s favourite theme of a communist takeover in Britain. It is said that the Sallust books inspired Ian Fleming to create James Bond. Twelve books featured Roger Brook, from 1947 to 1974, in the historical espionage genre. He wrote two science fiction novels – 60 Days to Live (1939) and Star of Ill-Omen (1952) – I’ve read both, but many years ago, the latter was especially awful space opera. Wheatley, wisely, never went near that genre again. Three more novels come under the ‘lost world’ genre – one is Uncharted Seas (1938); three are occult novels; another seven are ‘general adventure’, which includes many of the early novels, for example The Eunuch of Stamboul (1935). Two books are non-fiction – one, Red Eagle (1937), I still have – Wheatley’s very hostile take on the Russian Revolution. All of his books that I’ve seen or read are long – 300-plus pages at least. Wheatley wore his politics on his sleeve; he was very High Tory, pro-monarchist, pro-imperialism, pro-class system. He was a snob, who thought the working classes “lazy”. He opposed both Nazism and communism, but strangely thought the latter to be controlled by Satanists – odd, given most Marxists were atheists, whereas there is evidence to show leading members of the Hitler regime (Himmler, for instance) were fascinated by the occult. Perhaps Wheatley’s obsessive hatred of communism clouded his judgement. In 1947, in the early years of the reforming Atlee government, he predicted a socialist ‘tyranny’, to which he actually justified the killing of “tyrannical officials” – right-wing ‘White terrorism’ to you and I. He served in World War I, was briefly a wine merchant from the 1920s to 30s, before realising he could make more money from writing. In World War II he worked in the London Controlling Section of the War Office, and had the rank of Wing Commander, RAFVR. As a young man he was a womaniser and rake, even keeping a check-list of his numerous conquests. Of his novels, six were filmed – Forbidden Territory in 1934, made at Lime Grove Studios, London; The Secret of Stamboul in 1936, from the novel The Eunuch of Stamboul, also known as The Spy in White, made at Shepperton Studios; The Devil Rides Out; The Lost Continent (from the novel Uncharted Seas), in 1968, also by Hammer Films, but of poor quality; To the Devil – A Daughter, in 1976, a UK/West German (Hammer/Terra Filmkunst) production, starring Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee and a nude, 14-year-old Natassja Kinski. From the 1953 novel of the same name, Wheatley utterly disliked it – rightly so, it was crap – thereafter forbidding any further movies to be made of his books, while even the scriptwriter admitted it was “an awful mess”. Finally, in 2006, The Haunting of Toby Jugg was made for BBC4, titled The Haunted Airman.
Wheatley’s books weren’t literature, but dense, complicated, and well-researched blockbusters, if indisputably class-ridden and snobby. He could soon go from interesting to tiresome and long-winded. By the 1970s they were already falling out of favour – as was his political/historic stance, although perhaps – in blinkered, backward-looking, Brexit Little Britain, he might yet enjoy a renaissance. The Matherson/Terence Fisher movie is perhaps one of those very rare examples of a movie being as good, if not better, than the book. Being already set forty years previous (in the novels Wheatley’s Jean Armand Duplessis, the Duc De Richleau, was born 1875, died 1960), the film still remains enjoyable and not dated. Even the special effects of the forces of evil besieging our heroes, most memorably the giant spider and the Angel of Death – given the period, and decades before CGI – are as good as anything of that time. The very nature of the story – occult fantasy – requires a good hefty suspension of belief. There have been plenty of such movies since – perhaps starting with Spielberg’s Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), all noise and shouting and over-the-top set-pieces, but with geography, mythology and 1930s political history as written by a not-very-bright 12 year old schoolboy. At least Wheatley set his novels – no matter how fantastic the plot – in the real, factual world. He wouldn’t have had armed German soldiers tramping about 1936 British protectorate Egypt! On the other hand, the ending – where the forces of good turn back time, and then (again rather like the last reel of Lost Ark) literally vaporise the bad guys – is a cop-out. White magic can turn back time! Come on! Why not turn back time far enough to stop Simon from meeting Mocata in the first place? The Angel of Death takes the soul of black magician Mocata rather than the dead Tanith? How considerate! I admit that I read the novel so long ago now, as to not recollect any details. Wheatley, the author, was not a Dan Brown or Jeffrey Archer, or even an H.P. Lovecraft recluse, extracting his mythos from books. He had done his research on black magic, white magic, and the occult. Moreover, he had met both the so-called ‘Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and Catholic priest occult expert Montague Summers (1880-1948). He claimed to have seen things, met people, and experienced evil at first hand. He made a big thing of warning readers not to dabble in the occult. If nothing else, it sold copies – on average a million books a year, 40 million books overall. Once read, rarely re-read, however – unlike the Matheson/Fisher movie, which can be watched and enjoyed time and time over. Wheatley wrote pot-boilers, fast, frantic plots featuring comfortable-off middle- to upper-class types, but his books are – in retrospect – racist, xenophobic, sexist, class-ridden, and with a reactionary, right-wing political bias. Quite rightly, as an author, he has passed out of fashion, although superseded by younger – not very intelligent or knowledgeable – upstarts who are more likely to have the bad guys win. In the movie world, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby also came out in 1968, and this time there was no wise Duc De Richleau or his ilk to save the good people. The hope and optimism of the 1960s gave way to the darkness and despair of the 1970s. After this, pictures didn’t just get smaller (as Norma Desmond remarked in Sunset Boulevard), but darker also. The Devil Rides Out was probably not only the best Hammer movie ever, but reminds us movies were once still more positive and upbeat.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 29 – Point Blank


Point Blank

29: POINT BLANK: 1967. Director: John Boorman. US. Crime drama. Lee Marvin. Angie Dickinson. Keenan Wynn. Carroll O’Connor. John Vernon.
Producer: Judd Bernard and Robert Chartoff. Scriptwriter: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse and Rafe Newhouse, loosely based on the 1963 crime noir pulp novel The Hunter, by Donald E. Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). Editor: Henry Berman. Screen-time: 92 minutes. Original MGM budget: $2million. Actual budget: $2.5Million. Box office takings US and Canada only: $9million. Despite this, it was not regarded as a success at the time, but is now a cult classic.
This was British-born director John Boorman’s first Hollywood movie. He was born in 1933 at Shepperton, then Middlesex. He and Lee Marvin met in the UK while Marvin was filming war movie The Dirty Dozen (1967, with Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland, at MGM’s British studio). Marvin invited Boorman to Hollywood, and the two subsequently became life-long friends. Marvin was even godfather to Boorman’s son, Charley Boorman (born 1966), the actor, television presenter, travel writer and motorbike enthusiastic. After Point Blank, John Boorman directed Marvin’s next war movie, Hell in the Pacific (1968, with Japanese actor Tohir? Mifune). Boorman’s later films include Deliverance (1972, starring John Voight and Burt Reynolds); the rather wacky sci-fi fantasy Zardoz, with Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling (1974); Exorcist II: The Heretic, with Linda Blair and Richard Burton (1977); and the comedy war drama Hope and Glory (1987). Currently his filmography is 1965 to 2019.
Again we have Chris Petit writing a review in the Time Out Film Guide: “One of the definitive films to emerge from Hollywood in the late ’60s, this hard-nosed adaption of Ricard Stark’s The Hunter owes much to the European influences that Boorman bought with him from England. People have noted the influence of Resnais behind the film’s time lapses and possible dream setting, but Godard’s Alphaville offers a more rewarding comparison. Both films use the gangster/thriller framework to explore the increasing depersonalisation of living in a mechanical urban world. Just as Constantine’s Lemmy Caution was a figure from the past stranded in a futuristic setting, so Marvin’s bullet-headed gangster is an anachronism from the ’50s transported to San Francisco and LA of the ’60s, a world of concrete slabs and menacing vertical lines. Double-crossed and left to die, Marvin comes back from the dead to claim his share of the money from the Organization, only to become increasingly puzzled and frustrated when he finds there is no money, because the Organization is the world of big business run by respectable men with wallets full of credit cards.” The, rather obscure, throwaway mention of ‘Resnais’, refers to the French film director/screenwriter, Alain Resnais (1922-2014), contemporary to, but not part of, the 1960s la nouvelle vague ‘New wave’, whose films were said to “explore the relationship between consciousness, memory and the imagination, and…was noted for deriving innovative formal structures for his narratives.”
Point Blank is sunlit film noir with a touch of Godard New Wave surrealism. I’ve not been a Lee Marvin fan – neither for nor against, and I’ve watched only a few of his films. Here he is Lee Marvin playing Lee Marvin the hard-nosed gangster and professional killer. What sets this apart from any other gangster/crime/revenge movie is its air of underlying mystery and ambiguity. Walker himself is an enigma. He seems to have no other name – not even to his sexy sister-in-law Chris (Angie Dickinson). The film starts and ends at Alcatraz Island. Walker is shot following a stitch-up over heist loot by his friend Reese, who also then sleeps with Walker’s wife, Lynn. Everything that follows could be Walker extracting revenge on the ‘Organization’, while seeking to claim his share of the money due him, or it could all be Walker’s dream of revenge, the dream either of a dying man, or – like washed-up scriptwriter Joe in Sunset Boulevard – a man already dead. Is it real? If real, how did Walker survive, or swim from Alcatraz? We next see him on a San Francisco ferry or tourist boat as it passes the island. Thereafter, systematically, one by one, he eliminates members of the Organization who try to obstruct him, buy him off with packets of fake money, or attempt to assassinate him, although he seems strangely invincible now. He moves in and out of the shadows, and even perhaps through time – we see his wife Lynn’s apartment several times over, furnished, then unfurnished. He is not just the out-of-time, left-over 1940s/early 50s anachronism of Petit’s review above, but like a automaton, a pre-programmed robot, emotionless and single-minded. Only the bare outline of plot links it to the ‘Robert Stark’ (Donald E. Westlake) novel, The Hunter, which featured an unlikeable gangster/killer named Parker. The outcome is different, the ending less ambiguous. Originally written as a one-off, Westlake’s editor persuaded him to change the ending, and the character lived on, for another 23 novels over 46 years. The setting, too, has been moved from New York to LA, and again one thinks of the similar relocation of Spillane’s Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly. The Marvin/Boorman movie is a visual film of memorable set-pieces – of Marvin taking the crooked car salesman for a ‘test drive’, pre-seat-belts, and smashing up the vehicle under the flyover; Marvin and Angie Dickinson looking at Reese’s rooftop penthouse suite through the tourist telescope; Marvin at the LA River concrete drainage channel, made famous by the 1954 science fiction movie Them! Then there is Dickinson in seductive mode, having sex with Reese as a distraction for Walker to sneak up on him in the bedroom. In the cinema version I recollect seeing she wore red panties. In the television broadcast version that was edited out, but at least one other version has her scurrying naked out of the bed as Walker threatens Reese with a gun. Walker doesn’t actually intentionally kill anyone, as I recollect – unlike Westlake’s murderous thug. Instead, Walker set up the bad guys to kill each other, in the mistaken guise of trying to kill him. As for Reese – one time friend, who took both his money and his wife (she took an overdose soon after Walker reappears) – he goes tumbling over the parapet of his penthouse terrace, landing on the roof of a passing car.
With Carter eliminated by a sniper at the LA river, the next in the chain of command, Brewster, arranges with his superior, Fairfax, for a money drop at Alcatraz. It is another set-up, and the sniper shoots Brewster instead of Walker, who remains out of sight, in the shadows. As he dies Brewster reveals Fairfax’s true identity of Yost, who then steps forward, claiming he has used Walker to eliminate troublesome underlings, and offers a partnership. The movie ends with Yost leaving, the packet unopened, Brewster dead, Walker just a face in the darkness, before the camera pulls up and away, a night-time view of Alcatraz, back where we started. Even Boorman refused to explain or unravel the ambiguity. But this was very much Marvin’s movie also. At a pre-production meeting with studio executives, Marvin demanded complete control of the script and cost, then handing his authority over to Boorman, as director. But Marvin remained hands-on in shaping the picture and its central character. This was his creation, as much as Boorman’s. He was to appear in another 18 movies, but in the 1970s moved away from the tough bad-guy roles, his last role being in 1986.
Lee Marvin (1924-1987), after service in the Marines, 1942-45, in Asiatic-Pacific front, got his first acting break on stage in 1949, appeared on television in 1950, and his first film role in 1951. Thereafter, he moved, seemingly effortlessly, back and forth from film to television, appearing in numerous long-running series such as The Virginian, Dr Kildare, Wagon Train, Route 66, Dragnet, Bonanza, even in The Twilight Zone. From 1957-60 he played Detective Lieutenant Frank Ballinger in the NBC TV series M Squad, set in Chicago. Over the three seasons it featured Charles Bronson, James Coburn (who I always think is of the same ilk), Burt Reynolds, Leonard Nimoy (before he found fame in Star Trek), and Angie Dickinson – who would herself eventually star in a police TV series, as Sgt Suzanne ‘Pepper’ Anderson in Police Woman, 1974-78. In film, Marvin had a small part in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, with Spencer Tracey); Not as a Stranger (with Robert Mitchum, also 1955); I Died a Thousand Times (Jack Palance, 1956); Seven Men From Now (with Randolph Scott, again 1956); The Rock (Paul Newman, 1956); The Comancheros (1961, with John Wayne); The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, with Wayne and James Stewart); Donovan’s Reef (1963); top billing in The Killers (1964, with Ronald Reagan and Angie Dickinson); then comedy, Cat Ballou (1965, with Jane Fonda); Ship of Fools (1965, with Vivien Leigh); The Professionals (1966, with Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan). His 1970s period films were less successful, and he declined a role in Jaws (1975), apparently on the basis of upsetting his fishing friends. In 1983 he was in Gorky Park, with William Hurt, and his last movie was Delta Force, 1986, with Chuck Norris. He was married twice, to Betty Ebeling (1951-67), and Pamela Feeley (1970-87), while lived with Michelle Triola (1965-70).
Angie Dickinson (born Angeline Brown, 1931), continued to use her first married name, to Gene Dickinson, from 1952 to 1960. She later married musical composer/arranger Burt Bacharach (1965 to 1981). Her filmography was from 1954 to 2004. Her television appearances are from 1954 to 2009. As we can see from above, she and Lee Marvin had a history of performances together, perhaps the reason she got the part. The story goes that, whilst filming at Alcatraz, Angie and Sharon Acker (who played Lynne Walker) modelled fashion shoots for Life magazine.
I loved the movie even back when I first saw it, on original cinema release. Many critics at the time were less enthralled, or were simply baffled. Others were suitably impressed – “A brutal melodrama…intermittently dazzling.” – “Film noir to stylistic taste of European nouvelle vague.” – “Ignored in the 1960s, now regarded as the top film of the decade.” Another story is the studio executives wanted to do reshoots, but supervising editor Margaret Booth told John Boorman, “You touch one frame of this film over my dead body.” It is said many of the visual metaphors and colour tones were directly suggested by Lee Marvin himself. It is another time capsule of LA, but now in the 1960s.
Here are my comments as written 06/03/1988:
Point Blank (1967) with Lee Marvin (as ‘Walker’) and Angie Dickinson – I remember seeing this years ago at the time it first came out, but two of the most vivid memories of the film were either false or (more likely) for whatever reason edited out – in the penthouse scene Angie D. strips to her red panties as Walker’s latest victim Reeves prepared to seduce her, and when Reeves goes over the roof terrace we actually saw him hit the roof of a passing car in the street, and I recollect someone screaming…Even at the time I suspected that a body going it from however many floors up the penthouse was, would not be very solid on impact. In retrospect the film is rather ghastly and surrealistic. Is the whole thing a dream fantasy evoked in the last minutes of Walker’s life when shot down by Reese at the film’s beginning? Is he a ghost bent on vengeance, or did he really survive and swim back from Alcatraz? The film uses flashbacks, flashbacks on flashbacks, Walker moves in the shadows, a pro killer, but sometimes lost, directionless, really a puppet being manipulated by the mob to eliminate each other. This, we are told, is the time in American films when the so-called heroes got lost, killed or seem confused. It reflected the feeling of a nuclear age USA. Walker is a Mike Hammer type, but (despite the body count) the film lacks the mean nastiness of Kiss Me Deadly. The setting is L.A. again, but in colour and sunshine. We see downtown, high-rise hotels, the Hollywood hills and the famous storm-drains of the L.A. River – setting for Them! and several other movies, it seems. But overall a rather strange sense of nothing. Boorman, the producer, was British and another contemporary film very similar in mood (though not in content!) is Blow Up – in the same surrealistic mood, the same drifting anti-hero, the same casual sex.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge’s 40 Favourite Movies: 28 – Belle de Jour


Belle de Jour

28: BELLE DE JOUR: 1967. Director: Luis Buñuel. France/Spain. Drama [French with sub-titles]. Catharine Deneuve. Jean Sorel. Geneviève Page. Pierre Clémenti. Michel Piccoli.
Script by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, adapted from the 1928 novel of the same name, by Joseph Kessel (1898-1979), French journalist and novelist. Several of his novels were filmed, notably Le coup de grâce (1931), made as the movie Sirocco (1951, starring Humphrey Bogart). Editor: Louisette Haulecoeur. Cinematography: Sacha Viemy. Screen time 101 minutes. Box office takings: $20.2million. It remains the most successful and best known of Luis Buñuel’s movies. The title is a play on the French expression belle du nuit, meaning a prostitute. Deneuve’s character Séverine becomes a part-time deux a cinq hooker by day – hence her name ‘beauty of [the] day’, a flower that blooms only in daylight. It warrants a two-page spread in Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, with commentary by Adrian Martin, film critic of The Age: “Luis Buñuel unfussily described Belle de Jour as ‘pornographic’, but added that it explored ‘chaste eroticism.’ Indeed, it is probably the last great sex film of the 1960s before the greater permissiveness and (temporarily) relaxed censorship regulations created a new graphicness in erotic representations. Belle de Jour is a sublimely fetishistic movie. Buñuel cares not for Catherine Deneuve’s nakedness, but for the clothes and veils that cover it, and for her extraordinarily polished and glazed feminine surface. Although the film revolves around the goings-on at a high-class brothel, sex is never shown. Taking place behind closed doors, within secret nooks, even in one hilarious scene under a coffin, the sexual perversions hinted at defy the wildest imagination. Deneuve plays Séverine Serizy, a bourgeois wife who is frigid (perhaps even virginal) with her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel). She eventually assumes a double life on weekday afternoons as a prostitute. Here she feels safe, it seems, to explore her prodigious, masochistic sexual fantasies. However, the neatness of her system is overturned when a flamboyantly seedy gangster (Pierre Clementi) wins both her heart and intrudes into her respectable life.
“Summarized like this, Belle de Jour may seem a schematic, preposterous male fantasy. In fact, it is one of the most mysterious, poetic, complex, and beguiling films ever made. No character’s psychology is ever rendered simply or clearly. Nor is the nature of the everyday world they inhabit. Quietly but surely, Buñuel leads us into a strange territory poised perfectly between dream and reality. Hallucinatory effects that are both funny and disturbing fill the film – such as different characters referring ominously to ‘letting in the cats’ that we hear but never see. Well before the extraordinary final scene, viewers who are open to the seductive, dream-like texture will no longer expect to know what is really happening – a sweet liberation indeed.”
Luis Buñuel Portolés (1900-1983) was an Spanish film-maker, naturalised Mexican citizen from 1939, who worked in Spain, the USA, Mexico and France. His early years he was a surrealistic, and collaborator with Salvador Dali. In 1934 he married Jeanne Rucer Lefebvre, who he had met a few years previous. He was described by one critic as a man “cynical about human nature”, but fascinated by how “deep emotional programming may be more important than free will.” He also believed – and this seems to be reflected in the Séverine/Deneuve character – that we are “hardwired at an early age into lifelong sexual patterns.” As a director, he might be compared to Alfred Hitchcock, in his adherence to precision, efficiency and pre-production preparation.
Buñuel had been introduced to the Kessel novel by Egyptian-French producers, brothers Robert and Raymond Hakim (who “specialised in sexy films”), but he thought the story “a bit of a soap opera” and didn’t like it much. However, he saw it as a challenge to change it into something he did like. Strictly in the interests of authenticity (we must assume), he and Jean-Claude Carrière frequented Madrid brothels, interviewing the women there on their sexual fantasies. Buñuel was not happy at the choice of then-22 year old Deneuve for the role of Séverine – foisted upon him by the Hakim brothers and François Truffaut, whose lover Catherine then was at the time. This made for a difficult working relationship for both actress and director. Buñuel thought her prudish. Her response was, “I felt they showed more of me than they’d said they were going to. There were moments when I felt totally used. I was very unhappy.” While the nudity was tame by today’s standards (or that of Deneuve’s later movies), and most of the time she was in white bra and panties, there were Séverine’s fantasy scenes where she is flogged, raped, tied-up and pelted with muck, deliberately shocking to both audience and actress. However, it was still a career-defining movie for her, and one of her most ironic, and memorable, performances. Afterwards she called it a “wonderful film”, and even sympathised that Buñuel struggled with deafness and working in French rather than his native Spanish. Deneuve herself was almost equally fluent in English and Italian, as well as Spanish. Critic Robert Ebert called it “the best known erotic film of modern times, perhaps the best.” But another critic remarked – one wonders if with disappointment, “In terms of explicit sexual activity, there is little in Belle de Jour we might not see in a Doris Day comedy from the same year.” I don’t think anyone was going to compare Catherine Deneuve – then or since – with Doris Day.
Born in 1943, as Catherine Febienne Doriéac, Deneuve’s film career began in 1957, but it was the romantic musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and then Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) that first made her name. After a 1961-64 live-in affair with Roger Vadim (1928-2000 – he was previously married to Brigitte Bardot 1952-1957, and Annette Stroyberg 1958-1961), she was married to British photographer David Bailey from 1965 to 1972. She and Vadim had a son, Christian, born 1963. After her divorce from Bailey, she has never married again, but continued to have both casual affairs and high-profile ‘partners’ in her life – most notable from 1970 to 1974 with fellow actor Marcelle Mastroianni (1924-1996), by whom she had a daughter, Chiara, born 1972. Despite her name being linked to so many men – her more recent love-life since 1991 is rather a mystery – she also has acquired the status of a lesbian ‘icon’ – perhaps starting with her first girl-on-girl kiss with Genevière Page (born as Genevière Bonjean, 1927, filmography 1952 to 1992), who played the Parisian bordello patronne, Madame Anaïs. After Belle De Jour, Deneuve often played rather icy, aloof, mysterious beauties. Over her long career since, she has also been a singer, model, producer; the face of Chanel No. 5 perfume in the 1970s; muse (and life-long friend) of Yves Saint Laurent; and the face of ‘Marianne’, symbol of French liberty, from 1986 to 1989. In 1979 she was in the running to star as the leading lady in a proposed movie, The Short Night, Alfred Hitchcock’s next proposed project after Family Plot, but he was taken ill and died soon after. What an interesting combination that might have been! Not without her moments of controversary, while Deneuve has also supported political courses; abortion and other rights for women; and the international abolition of the death penalty, she was more recently critical of the extremism (as she saw it) of the ‘MeToo’ movement against women’s sexual exploitation and abuse in the movie industry, seemingly arguing that ‘men will be men’.
Buñuel was 67 when he made this film; weary, bored and unwell, saying it would be his last. In fact he made another five movies over the next ten years – Tristana (1970, again with Deneuve); The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972); The Monk (1973); The Phantom of Liberty (1974); and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). David Thomson, in Movies of the Sixties, cautions: “The last thing to trust in a Buñuel film is the story outline. The synopsis of Belle de Jour could be told in half-a-dozen ways, for the events that materialise on screen are always subject to the enigma of whether they are real or fantastic.” And he remarks a little later, “It might be that the entire film is a dream,” reminding us that Buñuel was, at heart, a surrealist, and, later still, the film “hovers between the deadness of life and the ecstasy of imagination.” Séverine is a young, newly-married wife to handsome surgeon-doctor Pierre Sevigny (Jean Sorel, born 1934, with the real, rather romantic, name of Jean Bernard de Chieusses de Combuad de Roquebrune; film career from 1959, mostly television from the 1980s, exclusive to Europe). However, she is unable to find emotional or sexual satisfaction in love or a conventional marriage; instead she indulges, first in masochistic fantasies, then in her secret alternative life as an afternoon-only high-class hooker at Madame Anaïs’ bordello at No. 11 cité Jean de Saumur. After a false start, when she gets cold feet and flees, she returns and eventually progresses to entertaining a series of strange male clients, each with rather kinky, if often ambiguous, sexual fetishes. She willingly submits herself to humiliation; the (somewhat hilarious) necrophiliac rites of a Duke (Georges Marchal), although this may be another of her fantasies; and is intrigued by, and actually enjoys, the mysterious ways of a burly Japanese client (Iska Charvey) with his buzzing, lacquered box – the mysterious contents of which we, the audience, never discover. Finally she falls for young gangster Marcel (Pierre Clèmenti, 1942-1999, born of a Corsican mother, unknown father, and who Deneuve would feature with again, in Benjamin, 1968). Marcel is a swaggering thug, armed with a sword-stick, wearing black leather, and with a grotesque mouthful of steel teeth. She submits herself to his insults and brutal love-making, but he, in turn, becomes obsessed by her cool, elegant beauty, eventually following her home and shooting her husband, before himself being shot dead by the police. Husband Pierre is now crippled and paralysed, while the police (naturally) cannot find a motive for the attempted assassination. Only their acquaintance, the smarmy Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli), knows Séverine’s secret (sexually desiring her for himself), and he tells Pierre, who seemingly retreats into himself, whilst still being evermore reliant on her in his helplessness. In the last reel, the open carriage landau of the opening reel – symbol of dream image sexuality, which also featured in the Duke’s fetish – passes by the house, empty. Even within this greater narrative, there are complex and subtle messages, hidden symbolism, alternative shades of meaning, mysteries. We glimpse something of Séverine’s childhood, there is the meowing of cats, desolate beaches, the derelict farmyard where Séverine is pelted with what is probably cow mature, apartment stairways with the camera lingering on her shoes – an apparent foot fetish perhaps – clothes and sudden vivid colours. Even – and I assume this dates back to the novel – her name is a feminised version of that of the hero in Leopold von Sacker-Masoch’s famous novel Venus in Furs. The blending of apparent reality with dream-like fantasy is also seen in another of my favourite movies from the same period, John Boorman’s Point Blank – which again, despite being filmed in Los Angeles, was very much with a strong French ‘New Wave’ European influence. And it has to be said, one cannot imagine this film being made by an British or American director, nor filmed in the UK or USA. Like Godard’s A Bout de Souffle, it is intrinsically French, in its attitude perhaps towards sex, femininity, fashion, beauty, and philosophy. Strangely, despite its subject being set most of the time in a brothel (even a very discreet, rather genteel, bourgeoise one), and with its cast of wacky male clients, it is a film with a strong feminist ethos – the patronne, the working-girls, Séverine herself, unbowed and somehow indomitable. She is neither subservient nor victim. Perhaps we should let Deneuve herself sum up the film, in an 2011 interview published in the UK Independent newspaper, when challenged on what was, for many outside of France, her most memorable movie; “Sometimes you have a part like that that stays with you forever. But it’s alright, because it’s a very complex film that I still like very much. It’s never been a shadow that I feel I need to escape.”

Film 2022: Taxi Driver


taxi

This is a great film and a landmark. It is lit by a great performance. I saw it in the cinema when it was first released in 1976, though for some reason my mind keeps trying to shift it into the early Eighties, and this is the first time I have seen it since. I will very probably never watch it again.

Taxi Driver came over to me as a portrait film, a portrait of two things intimately connected, both of them decaying in front of our eyes and already at a point from which recovery is impossible. One of these is ex-Marine Travis Bickle, played of course by Robert de Niro, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, insomniac, steadily going crazy, who takes to driving a New York cab to fill the long and sleepless hours. The other is New York City itself, bankrupt, crumbling, dying in its own length, abandoned withut hope, an anthill without direction. This was the real city itself in 1975 when the film was filmed, on a shoestring budget, in an almost guerilla fashion.

Bickle is the film’s study. He’s a walking contradiction, fulminating against the filth, the scum, the hookers and the pimps, the pushers and the junkies, in a puritanical rage that’s betrayed by his own inability to reason or to talk. Yet whilst he’s personally clean of recreationsal drugs, he is constantly popping pills for his headaches and stomach aches, and his entertainment is porn movies.

Director Martin Scorsese and scripter Paul Schrader give Bickle two obsessions, both blonde and female, but the characters can’t be more different. In the film’s first half it’s Cybill Shepherd, cool, blonde, immaculately dressed, witty, a Hitchcock blonde from the classic tradition. She’s a campaign volunteer for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), who’s seeking his party’s nomination for the Presidency. Bickle is obsessed by the sght of her. He’s different enough from the men she normally meets to intrigue her into a coffee, where she half-agrees with his contention that they have a connection (more I think out of curiosity than actually feeling a connection: to me, I think she’s playing along, wanting to see where this might go but not admitting to anything within). But Travis’s idea out a date is a Swedish porno movie that she walks out of after about two minutes, and won’t have anything to do with him after that.

No-one normal would be surprised at that, but Travis is so far disconnected from the rest of us that he cannot process it. Throughout that first half of the film I couldn’t escape connecting him to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Rorscharch from Watchmen, someone who was seeing everybody around him through a thick and distorting sheet of glass – but then that did occur a decade after the film.

In Betsy’s place, Bickle finds another fixation. This is Iris Steinsma, who calls herself ‘Easy’. Iris is a prostitute, a streetwalker, a hooker. She’s also a 121/2 year old girl who’s run away from home, a classic example of a story that we’re all too familiar with now. Iris was played by Jodie Foster, herself then only 12 years old and having had to pass psychological testing to ensure she was capable of playing this part without suffering trauma from the actions she had to carry out and witness (don’t worry, the film goes no further than her being hugged and wooed by her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel)).

Bickle wants to save Iris, get her out of this life, it’s no good for her. He’s not really thinking of her. He wants her to be compressed into the milk-and-cookies, schools-and-proms life that is what, and the whole of the what, his stunted imagination thinks is proper for a girl her age. I mean, in general terms he’s right, but life isn’t always like that. Why has Iris run away from home in the first place? Not that we know amything about that, the film exists in its present moment bubble with people sas they are and no dots being connected as to why they are, but sometimes there are reasons and not necessarily bad ones why kids run away.

Bickle doesn’t know and doesn’t care. De Niro keeps everything of him inside. He’s at one and the same time hollow, and a visibly disintegrating person. We see his actions, the sudden emphasis of physical fitness, the equipping of himself with handguns, we know that is not going to end in tea parties and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and if we have any sense we don’t want to go there, but we can’t get out of this cab-ride until the end.

Which is brutal and nasty, and would have got the film an X-Certificate if Scorsese hadn’t had the colour saturated to reduce the impact of the blood. Bickle shaves his head into a short mohawk, which looks disturbing in itself. He reverts to his initial obsession, intending to assassinate Senator Palantine (and be killed by the Secret Service as a crescendo) in front of Betsy but his strange appearance and his strange demeanour has him made before, for all his practice, he can get his gun out, and he runs.

To his other obsession. He raids the cheap and grimy hotel where Iris plys her disgusting trade. He shoots Sport in the stomach, he shoots the Hotel Manager, blowing half his hand off to begin with and eventually knifing him and shooting him in the head, he empties an entire clip into the Mafioso john. He takws a number of bullets himself, eventually collapsing under them. He intends to commit suicide, the orgasmic conclusion, but is denied that: he has run out of bullets.

There follows a curious five minute coda. Many have read this as a dream sequence, an ‘Incident at Owl Creek’ dying moments fantasy, but Scorsese and Schrader have denied this, and I didn’t get any feel of that whilst watching it myself, though it seemed illogical and out of step. Basically, after weeks in a coma, Bickle survives. The papers hail him as a hero. Iris has been restored to her parents and the life Bickle envisaged for her: he has their everlasting thanks. He’s back on the taxis again, downplaying stuff. His next passenger is Betsy. We only see her face as he sees it, in the rear view mirror, until she gets out and he refuses to charge her for the ride. She’s amiable, quietly talkative, ready to be responsive if he should ask her out again. Instead, he drives off, smiling and content. The film ends on him looking at something we don’t see in that rear view mirror.

It just doesn’t fit with the film, not for me. It’s all too pat. It doesn’t connect – and there’s that word, yet again – with everything that’s gone before it. It’s meant to show the irony of things, Travis the hero who, if he had been a mite faster on the draw, would have been the assassin, the unalloyed villain, how little an instant can change a life. And the unseen thing in the rear view mirror is meant to turn the film into a loop. Travis isn’t cured, he hasn’t had his anger cauterised, we and he know that there will be a next time of one sort or another, we’re going back to the beginning. But the moment was too brief for me, too ephemeral, to really make that stick sas the shock of realisation it was meant to be, because the patness, the normalcy was too great a contrast that I never took it as believably real. The scorpion’s tail can only sting if it’s still attached to the rest of its body.

But a great film nevertheless. It’s just that it isn’t something I want to watch again. It’s a film that I think you need to watch, rather than enoy. You need to see the things it wants to show you, and which it shows you in a manner that means you’re unlikely to forget them and need reminding. After that, watching it again is a bit too much like allowing in it. Which I do not choose to do.