Film 2019: They’re a Weird Mob

As the year and the run are fading out, this is the first half of the last double-header from my Powell/Pressburger box-set, and there couldn’t be a much greater contrast between this and next Sunday’s offering. For those who have been enjoying this weekend feature, acquisition of further DVDs has been going on all year, so there will be a Film 2020 for  couple of months.

They’re A Weird Mob is an Australian film, directed by Michael Powell, for which the screenplay was written by Emeric Pressburger, using the pseudonym Richard Imrie. The film came almost a decade after the formal split of the Archers, during which time Powell’s career in Britain had undergone a terminal decline  in the response to his controversial 1960 film, Peeping Tom. To contine his career, Powell had to leave the country, which saw him working Down Under.

The film is based fairly closely on the novel of the same name written by John O’Grady under the pseudonym Nino Culotta, the leading character. Both film and novel are classics in Australia, and the film is credited with revitalising the Australian Film Industry, paving the way for the Australian ‘New Wave’. Rights had been optioned by Gregory Peck as far back as 1959 but no workable screenplay could be produced.

This is the only film in this box-set that I had not previously watched, and I’m sorry to say that my instincts on this were right. If it weren’t for the fact that this is an Australian book/film/production/classic, I’d call it a nasty, cliched, condescending and cheap piece of crapthat makes me feel like apologising to Superman IV for thinking it the worst film in this entire run.

Italian actor Walter Chiari stars as the ‘eponymous’ Nino Culotta, an Italian sports writer who arrives in Sydney to work on La Segunda Madre, an Italian language magazine owned by his cousin Leonardo, only to discover that the magazine has folded and Leonardo has fled the country, owing nearly £1,000 to Kay Kelly (Clare Dunne), businesswoman daughter of bricklayer-turned-builder Harry Kelly. In order to pay Kay back, Nino becomes a bricklayer himself, leading eventually to their engagement.

That is, pretty well, all of the plot, though the film is fleshed out by Nino’s fish-out-of-water bafflement at Australian ways and, most heavily laden on, their slang. That was very much the point of O’Grady’s novel, but to say that it’s laid on with a trowel in the first half of the film is to understate it. It’s relentless, and to the audience outside Australia (which didn’t give a damn for the film) it’s as incomprehensible as it’s meant to be for Nino.

I found it more or less easy to follow, but then this wasn’t my first introduction to ‘Strine’. On the other hand, I’d already found myself prejudiced against the film, from its introduction, a tiresome piece of overripe cheese, that first pushed the Down Under idea literally, with footage shot upside down, and then started singing songs about Australia being a man’s country. And if you think that means the songs were putting over the notion that it was not a woman’s country, them my bloody oath, that’s dinkum, blue.

The longer the film goes on, the more it runs out of steam. It is very much a male movie, in which Kay is the only substantial female role, and she has to play against any feminine aspects for most of the picture. Judith Arthy (in her screen debutahead of a decade’s career in British TV) plays Dixie, Kay’s flirtatious friend, and Chiari’s wife Alida Chelli just scraped into the film as the glamorous Giuliana after it was decided she wouldn’t overshadow Claire Dunne (and to make sure of that she’s kept in a minor role and only given Italin to speak). As the female’s start to come more into the picture, the energy starts to drain out, and the film runs dry for the last three-quarters of an hour.

This bit is devoted mainly to the unconvincing romance between Nino and Kay. She starts off angry with him, over how she’s been conned, in a way that had me predicting they would end up in love, and indeed they do, but all that is is fulfillment of the cliche. The film cannot establish any grounds on which you start to believe that Kay has changed her mind or begun to care about Nino. He’s willing, polite, dedicated and determined to pay her back what is after all not his debt, but he doesn’t even start looking at her romantically until after she’s supposed to have started to take a fancy to him, and it never remotely feels real.

Even their own kiss is shot through the back of Chiari’s head, which draws attention to itself as indicating that the actor and actress don’t actually kiss. How can you believe in at after that?

So They’re a Weird Mob – the title is meant to refer to Australians in general – goes back into the box-set, never to be watched again. Frankly, I will watch Superman IV in preference to this. Next Sunday’s Film is a corrective I much need now.

Film 2019: Toy Story 3

There is a Neil Gaiman quote that I’m having difficulty tracking down. It goes something like, “There is room for stories to mean more than they seem.” All good stories, of whatever nature or media, have this element to them.

Toy Story 3 is famous for meaning more than it seems. It seems to be an adventure story in which the toys that belong to Andy are accidentally thrown out when he’s prepring to go to College, and about the scrapes and perils they go through to find a new home. It’s an engaging story with a happy ending, basic film fare, and enough good fun to keep the kids happy.

But you and I and we all know that it’s about much more than that, that there’s an adult subtext, a meaning more than it seems, only this subtext is the heart and soul of the film, so much so that for one adult on a grey and wet Sunday morning it inverts subtext into the only meaning of the film. The symbolism drops away and the conflicts are the film’s only point, to the extent that I frequently felt tht the little kids had been squeezed out of their own picture.

Of course they weren’t, as the Box Office and DV/BluRay sales more than demonstrated. Nor can I now see the film as I might have seen it at age 10, dazzled by the sheer wonder of toys that come to life and play out of sight. I can only see the themes of loss, and its concomitant, commitment. I can only see the grief of things not lasting forever when your very being is built upon eternity. I can only see the transformation thaat age brings and the severing of oneself from your own past that is both necessity and tragedy at the same time.

And I see especially the loyalty to friends who have become an extended family, in the moment that Andy’s toys come to the end of the road, the end of invention, lost in the trash and heading for the incinerator with no longer any bright schemes for getting just one stage further, and slowly they turn and face the fire, hand in hand in hand, going together as they have been together.

Toy Story 3 is about all these things. The beauty of fantasy, and what is a CGI film about toys being alive if it’s not a fantasy, is that it can strip a human situation down to its elemental reality and rebuild the same in dramatic terms using symbols. The Toy Story films are predicated on the simple but glorious idea that toys are committed to their owners, that their life exists in symbiosis with the child who plays with them. They are servants whose service is their one ideal and their lifeline.

So inevitably, the series had to deal with growing up. We all of us grow, and they toys that sustain our childhoods become obsolete as we find other needs to pursue. What then the afterlife of toys dependent upon a love that is now one-sided? Andy’s favorites remain, and thir destiny is the attic, and the maybe-dream of his nostalgia or introduction to his children in some generation to come.

Instead, an understandable misunderstnding sees them dumped as would-be trash, until the toys take matters into their own hands and re-allocate themselves to the box going to Sunnyside Daycare Centre and a life of permnent play. Woody is different: like my old , scruffy, much-mattered grey teddy ber, Woody is the representative of childhood, the one permitted talisman to be carried forward into the future, the bridge from one life to another. Woody’s going to College where he’ll be the ironic mascot.

But seeing his friends, his allies, his comunity, his family sending themselves away from Andy, betraying their duty, Woody tries to lead everyone home. He’s frustrated by two things, their own sense of betrayal on Andy’s part, the rejection (felt most keenly by Jessie who has been through this before) and the slow realisation that Sunnyside is not a haven but a prison, governed by Lotso-Huggin’-Bear (Lotso, a great performnce by Ned Beatty), a toy himself broken by rejection, twisted by hatred and determined to inflict his nihilism on everyone else.

Woody, after failing to persuad his family back to conformism, abandons them. They are promptly punished, having been tricked into the littlest kids room, where they are battered and beaten and smeared and smudged and threatened with death by overkill, a state that, probably unconciously, is represented as the consequence of not knowing ones place. Whereas Woody’s attempt to return to Andy and his role as the toy is temporarily diverted to a terrestrial paradise, with the little girl, Bonnie.

Bonnie is a delight. She’s happy, she’s funny, she’s imaginative, she’s a bundle of everything we like best to see in children. It’s just that she’s not Andy. But Woody’s path of duty is disrupted by another duty. As soon as he learns of Lotso’s tyrrany, he has to return and rescue his family. He is their leader, even in mutual separation.

So begins the Great Escape. It’s lit up by the most purely funny part of the film for me. In Woody’s absence, Buzz Lightyear has stepped up as pater familias but he is captured and factory reset to erase his memories. When Woody et al re-reset him, they accidentally switch on Spanish mode, and Spanish Buzz is a hoot! His sub-titled dialogue, his expressive body language, his overt romanticism from the moment he spots Jessie had me laughing out loud.

Despite the cleverness of the escape, Lotso is there ahead of the family, offering the alternatives of life under his dictatorship or commitment to the trash. Woody breaks Lotso’s spell, overcoming the brainwashing of the Bear’s powerful ally, Big Baby, who throws Lotso into the trash. But the inevitable twist sends the family after him, to the dump, the landfill, the trash compactor. Woody’s leadership gets everyone, even Lotso, through all these, until the incinerator looms. And everybody prepares to go together until the weird three-eyed aliens save the day and provide the eucatastrophe.

The film has not finished with us, though. The toys return to Andy, in time to be frozen, lifeless, in the attic. But this is again separation from Woody, this time a ‘happy’ one, but still a breaking of the Fellowship. Though they’ll all still belong to Andy, the sense is that they will never be together again, that they are justgoing into Limbo.

Woody can’t stand that. Against all his loyalty, he scribbles a note to take the toys away from Andy. Limbo in ownership is not enough, toys need to play and belong, actively not passively. Thinking its his mother’s idea, Andy donates the toys, not to Sunnydale (which we will see, in the credits, is now a place of fun, harmony, laughter and joy, with Lotso replaced by Ken and Barbie), but to the kid who will love them as Andy did: Bonnie.

The sentimentality wells up here as Andy introduces the toys one-by-one to a shy little kid growing less shy  and more wondering. She will love them. And bottom of the box is Woody, forsaking his future with ‘his’ Andy for his friends, his family, for the active life with Bonnie, who plays a contented afternoon with Andy, until the latter drives off. His toys gather to watch him leave.

All of these things, brought to us by pixels in a computer, invested with life by our own recognition and reaction, and our own understanding of love, commitment and rejection. I wonder how a little kid sees all this. I know how an adult does.


Film 2019: Superman IV – The Quest for Peace

For a working Sunday, a film is needed that can be summarised quickly: very well then, Superman IV – The Quest for Peace is crap.

On the other hand, I can’t summarise it that baldly, so here’s a few words about why it’s crap.

After the failure of Superman III, the Salkinds took a decision on the future of their franchise. They decided that Superman was played out as a movie character, instead of the more logical explanation, which was that fans thought Richard Lester’s approach was moronic. So instead of getting in writers and a director who could restore the character to a measure of the dignity displayed in the first film, they sold the rights to Golan and Globus, the Israeli producers who operated as Cannon Films.

This was not a good move. Yes, Cannon got Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder back, but they did not get New York back. Instead, ‘Metropolis’ was filmed in England, near Milton Keynes, on a shoestring budget. And doesn’t it show. Whether the franchise could have been revived or not, it wouldn’t be this way and Superman films were dead in the water for twenty years.

My viewing this morning is only the second time I have ever seen this film. And there are parts of it I have never seen, since I took a date with me and snogging in the middle row was much more entertaining than the film, trust me it was. And whilst that was not the mostsparkling ever relationship of my life, I could have done with a bit of snogging today.

One day, if I have the time and the energy, I might watch this film again with a view to a point-by-point demolition of it’s… qualities, starting with the rancid credit scene where names loop and swoop across the screen in a manner dangerous to those easily nauseated, and ending with the closing ‘battle’ in which the Laws of Physics are not so much ignored as despatched via warp-space to another dimension entirely, and about how parts  of the film display some of the worst aspects of DC Comics of the Seventies whilst others are more akin with the stories of the Forties. Just not today.

I described the film as crap. On more detailed thought I’d like to expand that to three words, these being cheap, moronic and deadly dull (technically, that’s four but I’m choosing to regard deadly dull as a single unit, since it is distinct from merely dull).

Cheap is self-evident from the awful blue-line special effects. There are many, too many ‘flying’ scenes where Superman or his newly-created opponent approach the camera head-on. In films 1 and 2, despite the primitive technology of forty years ago, these were never seamless but were convincing. In IV the bluescreen technology is shoddy at best, with the actors not merely separated from their backgrounds but lit from a completely different, nd queasily unnatural source.

Moronic is self-evident from the film’s theme. I’m sorry to say this about the late and entirely delightful Chruistopher Reeve, who suggested and helped develop the story out of a genuine concern for the proliferatiion of nuclear weapons world-wide (as who wasn’t under President Ronnie Reagan?), but the idea that you can dramatise that in a cartoon-like manner using a superhero is theEncyclopedia Brittanica definition of moronic.

Firstly, Superman declares war on nuclear weapons, prompted by a letter from a small boy, and chucks every single one into the sun. So Lex Luthor uses a strand of Superman’s hair to extract his DNA to create a Nuclear Man (a cardboard cut-out, crappy uniformed, mulleted piece of beefcake played by Mark Pillow who gets to roar but not speak as all his dialogue is dubbed by Gene Hackman: I hope the poor sod was well-paid).

So the threat to World Peace is symbolised by a long, drag-out punch-up between Suuperman and Nuclear Man that is not even as well-choreographed as your average ITV World of Sport Wrestling Bout in the late Sixties (4.00pm up to the football result), which Superman wins even thoough Nuclear Man is stronger than him.

And deadly dull? The film’s whole 86 minutes demonstrates tht. It’s loose and unstructured. It takes 40 of it’s 86 minutes (including lengthy credits at each end) to even introduce Nuclear Man. It wastes a lot of time on an uninteresting sub-plot whereby a Rupert Murdocch-like tycoon buys the Daily Planet to turn it into a raging tabloid whilst his slim, chic, long-legged daughter lusts after Clark Kent (I have never yet seen a convincing performance by Mariel Hemingway, nor have I ever fancied her in anything).

In short, it’s a mess.

But I was pleasantly surprised by one aspect of the film, which I found genuinely appealing, and that was the relationship between Lois Lane (welcome back Margot Kidder, even if you had to be horribly dressed to prevent you from outshining Ms Hemingway, which didn’t work) and Clerk Kent. True, the film borrows shamelessly from both Superman – a flying scene, this time round the United States – and Superman 2 – revealing his identity and removing it with another amnesia-inducing kiss – but in both this and, more tellingly, elsewhere, the film portrays the pair as genuine friends, caring about each other, and Kidder’s performance is full of a warmth and a relaxed nature about her friend. He’s still a klutz, still annoying in that respect, but Lois understands how genuine Clark is (the irony) and accepts and respects him as that. These are moments of illumination in a film that can’t otherwise be taken as anything but dim.

The only other comment I want to make now is something I picked  up on almost from the film’s beginning that I can’t decide if it is a subtle element in Reeve’s as usuaal brilliant performance in distinguishing between Clark and Superman or which is projection by me, but I thought I detected a subtle strain of underlying exasperation, never remotely overt, from Kal-El over the continued absurdity and minor humiliation of everything he has to do be ‘be’ Clark.  I know I’d be sick of it by now.

Film 2019: The Battle of the River Plate

It’s back to the Powell/Pressburger box-set for this and the next Sunday, with the 1956 film The Battle of the River Plate. The film is about a notable naval engagement in the early months of World War 2. It is unusual in the Archers’ collection in being an entirely straight film, lacking any of the flair or fantasy that the pair usually brought to their roles, and it is also the earliest of their films that I saw, less than ten years after its making, in our first house at Brigham Street, in black and white on our old 405-line telly, on what must have been a Sunday afternoon.

The film breaks down into three phases. A voiceover explains the set-up: that in order to disrupt the British War Effort, the German Navy targeted merchant ships to deprive Britain of supplies and starve it out. The film begins with the sinking of the MS Africa Shell by the fast-moving, heavily armoured Admiral Graf Spee, underhe command of Captain Hans Langsdorf (Peter Finch). Africa Shell‘s Captain, Dove (Bernard Lee) is taken aboard the Graf Spee and treated decently and honorably by Langsdorf.

During the War, the Archers faced a lot of difficulty over their depiction of sympathetic Germans, and with Langsdorf we’re here again. But this is apparently an honest depiction: indeed, the film sets out to be as truthful to the actual facts as it can, basing itself on the book written by the real Captain Dove (who was a technial advisor and also played a minor role as a fellow prisoner of Captain Dove!)

The first part of the film takes place on the Graf Spee. Langsdorf gives Dove (and the audience) an exposition of their tactics and actual superiority, Dove is allowed to see a lot of the ship, before the rest of the prisoners are transferred abroad, after which we only see them in their cramped quarters, and hear the sinking of the MS Doric Star.

The scene switches to the South Alantic, off the coast of South Africa. A British hunting pack, consisting of Ajax (the flagship), Achilles and Exeter is under tthe command of Commodore Harwood (Anthony Quayle). Harwood has been studying the Graf Spee‘s movements and is convinced it will be heading for their waters. He draws up plans to attack, to split theGerman fire by having Ajax and Achilles attack one flank and Exeter the other.

There is a long, tense sequence as everyone stands ready and lookouts are constantly searching the horizon, until at last one sees smoke. This leads into the battle sequence, which takes up twenty minutes of the film, and is a pretty comprehensive depiction of every stage of the action, even though it’s telescoped from the hour the battle took in real life, with the first six minutes in real time.

The authenticity of the battle, and indeed of all the scenes at sea, in enhanced by the generous co-operation of the Royal Navy in lending actual ships, and even more so that Achilles was ‘played’ by the original ship, still functioning over fifteen years later (the same thing went for the Cumberland, which arrives late in the film).

Though Exeter is so badly damaged it has to withdraw, the attack forces the Graf Spee to flee, ending up in Montevideo, Uruguay, a neutral country. This signals the film’s third and most impressive phase, as the tension slowy rises over the outcome. The original audience, only a decade after the War’s end, would have knwn what was coming, but not perhaps the step by step details.

Because Uruguay is a neutral country, the International Conventions require that the Graf Spee is entitled to remain for such time as is needed to restore it to seaworthiness, but it may not receive any assistance towards making it fit for battle. The Germans want two to three weeks, the British and the French 24 hours. The Uruguayans, a small nation but a proud one, determinedly reject German protest and the implicit threat of international blackmail and the consequences of  German victory in the War.

What might happen is the subject of much debate and preparation. Harwood, newly promoted to Rear Admiral and knighted, analyses Langsdorf’s options and determines he will attempt to break out, under cover of night, and try to lose the British. Harwood’s squadron is enhanced by the arrival of Cumberland, but the clever spread of misinformation gives everyone in Montevideo the impression of a large British fleet lying in wait.

The climax comes on a bright Montevideo evening (the scenes of Montevideo harbour are filmed on location with thousands of local extras). American reporter Mike Fowler (Lionel Murton) provides a live commentary that is radioed to Ajax. Harwood decides to move in, despite the risk of infringing neutrality. Interned or sunk, either would be a massive blow to German propaganda.

Graf Spee sets out with a skeleton crew, followed by a German merchant vessel. It travells three miles, at sunset, and stops. A party of men are taken off. At 8.00pm exactly, the end of the Uruguayan ultimatum to depart, the ship is wracked with explosions from stem to stern. It has been scuttled. The Battle is over.

One historical fact is omitted from the film, though a final scene in which Dove, a fellow Captain, commiserates with the shaken and morose Langsdorf hints at it. In true Captain’s tradition, Langsdorf wanted to go down with his ship but was persuaded to return to shore to ensure his crew receied the amnesty due to them, and which is promised unasked in the film. Having secured this, Langsdorf committed suicide.

Though it lacks the characteristics we expect from a Powell/Pressburger film, and whilst it is a low-key film emotionally, led by the stiff upper lip, and an almost entirely masculine one, The Battle of the River Plate was all the better for being treated in this semi-documentary fashion. You can’t imagine any War film being made like this film now, for there are no personal stories, no heroic actions nor tragic deaths, the story is not milked for screen drama, and because it is true to what happened. This approach was needed, in respect for the men who fought the battle, and in respect for the audience of men who had lived what happened, if not in Ajax, Achilles or Exeter, then in other heavy and light cruisers, in battleships and destroyers, and merchant ships, only a little more than a decade, and knew the score. My Uncle was one.

In a way, it would have been better to have bypassed this film today, saved it for a month, for the Sunday of the week I am going to Portsmouth, to the Naval Dockyard, to see what I can of my father’s National Service in the Royal Navy. It would have set the scene remarkably well.

As for my memory of this being the first Archers film I saw, let me return at the last to Lionel Murton, as the American reporter, Mike Fowler, who gets the film’s last line. Murton was English/Canadian but, because of his accent, generally played Americans. This war film didn’t attract me much, but I recognised Murton with whom I was familiar for his role as sidekick to Dickie Henderson, a popular English comedian (popular with my parents, certainly, not least because he was clean), whose successful sitcom was one of those converted to comic strip form in, I think, TV Comic, which I read avidly back then.

Murton stayed in my mind because I knew him, and he iss an integral part of that final phase of the film, where one does not have to know how things end in order to feel the rising tension, as the diplomats plot and deflect, and the crowds wait to see what will happen.

The Battle of theRiver Plate was made because Powell and Pressburger couldn’t justify a trip to a South American film festival without it being a working holiday. Their partnership was coming towards an amicable end. They had suffered four successive commercial flops, but this would be a final success. The film was ready for release in 1955 but Rank held it back a year to have it selected as the Royal Film Command Performance. It was Britain’s fourth most popular film of the year.

And in its strange, deliberately stilted fashion, it is a minor masterpiece. There are better films (and worse) in this eleven-disc boxset, but I wouldn’t swap this for any of the omissions.


Film 2019: Key Largo

Though I’ll always have a love for Casablanca, I think on balance my favourite Humphrey Bogart film is Key Largo, the 1948 film directed by John Huston, in which he co-stars with Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson.

The film is set in the Florida Keys, the chain of low-lying coral islands dependent upon Florida’s southernmost tip. It’s based on a Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson, and the film is mostly stage-bound, claustrophobic and all the more effective for it. Screenplay writers Huston and Richard Brooks took the central situation of the play, updated it by a decade, re-sited it in the Keys and provided the film with a happy ending. And in doing so created a classic.

Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a man who, since serving in theWar, has become a drifter, fending for himself, tending only to himself. Frank was a war hero, the type who did and never boasted, and a man who has turned cynical at what the world has failed to become after such deaths. He’s passing through Key Largo to visit the father and widow of one of his men, George Temple, to give them details of George’s service, and his death, the kind of things that official letters don’t tell. This was an aspect of War that has never been sufficiently emphasised, the way that returning soldiers brought news to families  who suffered losses.

George’s father, James (Lionel Barrymore), owns the Largo Hotel. A cripple who cannot walk unaided, he runs the Hotel with the assistance of his daughter-in-law, Nora (Lauren Bacall), a beautiful, calm woman whose own life has gone into a deep freeze since George’s death, and who, we later learn, knows more about Frank (and already is intrigued by him) because George had written of him, his Major: enough so to know that the story in which Frank depicts George as a hero is an untruth told to make Mr Temple feel proud, because George had already told it to her, with Frank as the real hero.

It’s a sentimental but touching scene, underplayed by all three, filled with the resonance of how many real scenes like this it’s audiences had played themselves. But this is a framework for the actual story, for Frank has walked into a situation whose tension is established instantly: people hanging round the Hotel, doing nothing, insisting the Hotel is closed and there’s nothing here for him. Five of them, including an aging glamour girl who’s now a lush, Gaye Dawn, real name Maggie Mooney, played by Oscar-winning Claire Trevor.

Everybody’s hanging around for the mysterious Mr Brown, who keeps to his room. Nobody’s quite square: the dapper Toots (Harry Lewis) is a tough guy and a giggler, Curly comes over all friendly, Gaye’s on edge. Worse still, there’s a Hurricane warning. The Seminoles are heading for Key Largo, where Mr Temple usually takes them in to shelter. So too are the Osceola brothers (one of whom is played by Jay Siilverheels, the future Tono in The Lone Ranger TV series), who look up to Mr Temple: they got busted for fighting, broke out of jail, but are here to give themselves up.

But there is a cancer in the midst of this set-up and it is Brown, whos real name is Johnny Rocco, an ex-Mob boss deported to Cuba, who’s on his way back, confident of regaining his former King-like position. Edward G. Robinson made a career out of playing villians and he is in his element here, slicked-back hair, a fat jaw with voluptuous lips, chewing on a cigar, oh yes, it’s a cliched appearance but it’s also an elemental one. Every atom of Robinson rates power, anger, arrogance and basic cruelty. Johnny Rocco can do what he wants, and he does it because he can and because he wants to. There are no restraints upon Johnny Rocco, though he doesn’t step outside what was acceptable to an audience in 1948, but he is nevertheless a monster, and a more effective one for only allowing the surface to play.

At one point, Johnny propositions Nora, whispering in her ear, softly enough that we cannot hear what he says, but Bacall conveys what we need to know by her reactions, her initial stone-facedness finally breaking into an attempt to scratch Johnny’s eyes out.

In fact, Bacall doesn’t have a grat deal of dialogue in this film, relying on her expressions and body-language to tell her story.

The story involves a double-imprisonment: Frank and the Temples are held by Johnny and his men’s guns, but everyone is held by the Hurricane, battering the Hotel. Johnny’s opposite number, Ziggy, is supposed to be meeting him here to collect the consignment (high-quality forged notes) but the Hurricane suspends time, leaving Johnny to fill it with needless cruelty, not the least of which is forcing Gaye to sing her theme song unaccompanied: Trevor, who had assumed she would lip-sync, was required to sing herself, without rehearsal, unexpectedly, exactly mirroring the story and her performance is astounding, as she realises the words she is singing relate directly to her and her voice goes off-key, falters and breaks.

But this scene is more than another illustration of the monstrosity of Johhny Rocco, it is fundamental to the story, which is the story of Frank McCloud. Frank’s come out of the War disillusioned. His old job, circulation manager of a newspaper, no longer fits. He deludes himself that he’s happy-go-lucky, looking for a job that involves boats, but what he’s really looking for is a future that holds meaning. The only thing about Johnny Rocco that matters to Frank is getting out alive and moving on. Johnny means nothing to him, it’s not up to him to fight Rocco. What’s one Rocco, more or less, in a world made for gangsters?

But Gaye is the moment Frank crosses over, or rather yet he crosses back. Like Rick in Casablanca, remembering who he really is, Frank finds that all his cynicism, all his intellectual urge to preserve himself, to not take risks for anyone but himself amounts to nothing, not even a hill of beans, against what he is inside, what he has always been. Frank will pilot the boat that will take Johnny and Co. back to Cuba. He will go with a gun, Johnny’s gun, snatched by Gaye in revenge when Johnny abandons her.

At the end, the film abandons its claustrophobic interiors, and sadly it loses focus, heading into an ending taking place on a small motor-cruiser, in a sea-mist whose light fails to match the noir tightness. Frank kills three of Rocco’s men and Rocco the fourth for refusing to get himself killed. He schemes and bargains and plans to cheat, all to get the ‘Soldier’ to let him go, and in the end he rages that Frank isn’t big enough to do this to him, not to Johnny Rocco, and that hubris gets him killed by a silent Frank, who has waited patiently to do what has to be done, and who executes Rocco. All that is left is the inevitability of the call to the Largo Hotel, where the fatal debris is being cleared up, the brushwood of disaster and evil that follows a Johnny Rocco, heedful only of himself, and that is to say, offstage, that Frank is coming back.

Nora takes the call, and once more Bacall puts it into the stillness of her face but the light in her eyes, and then she throws light into the story, opening the shutters to the sun that promises a future that Rocco cannot mar.

That’s the happy ending Huston and Brooks brought to the film. In the play, the villains are Mexican bandidos, Frank a Spanish Civil War veteran, and he is killed at the end. The film opts for optimism: the future Frank re-discovers is allowed to go ahead instead of coming tragically too late, and I like the film for that. Overall, the staging, the lighting, the direction, the script, and above all that the acting are good enough for that age-old but still enthralling story of a man being led back to do right, for the sole reason that it is right. Key Largo is right, and is a mesmeric experience.


Film 2019: Superman 3

The problem with Box Sets is that, sometimes, in order to get the things you want, you also have to have the things you don’t want, a dilemma exemplified by this mornings film. Though one mustn’t be too harsh about Superman 3, which has one massive saving grace: it is not Superman 4.

Actually, I think Superman 3 exemplifies the reason why this version of the Superman franchise failed so quickly and so substantially, despite having a massively successful film to lead it off and an actor perfect for the role: nervousness. Or, if you prefer, lack of conviction.

The Salkinds brought in Richard Donner to direct the first Superman movie, who did as he had done on The Three Musketeers, simultaneously filming the majority of its sequel. But the Salkinds fell out with Donner over the direction of the films and brought in Richard Lester, who re-filmed a lot of Superman 2 in order to get his Director’s credit, and who was solely responsible for Superman 3.

The two Directors had substantially different viewpoints. Donner was attuned to the myth and the substance of the Superman legend: watch the first film again, and, with the exception of Lex Luthor’s two unfunny accomplices, Donner treats everything with a seriousness absent from Lester)’s treatment, which goes for the silly and the foolish and the comic with the same directness as the old Dozier/Semple Batman TV series.

It’s not to the same degree as Dozier and Semple, who thought that anyone who liked Batman was stupid and worthless, but Lester can’t take Superman seriously, or cannot bear being thought to take Superman seriously. The whole idea has to be undercut with jokes, and silliness, conspicuously signally to Lester’s equals that he isn’t so gauche as to believe in what he’s doing, that he looks down on it.

And as the Salkinds preferred Lester over Donner, we have to assume that, despite the money they pumped into the first film, and the money they got out of it, they too could not be comfortable with people thinking they actually took superheroes seriously.

And you can’t take Superman 3 seriously.

I actually read the tie-in novel first. I don’t usually read tie-in novels at all, but I’d been recommended to the E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial novel because it was written by William Kotzwinkle and was hilarious, and I saw his name on this book. And Kotzwinkle made the novelisation fun, which was more than Lester managed with the film.

Probably, I’ve only seen this film once since going to see it in the cinema, and that likely a couple of decades ago. It hasn’t changed but I have, and from finding it tedious and unworthy first time round, I now found it to be utter trash, inept on practically every level, from start to finish.

There’s a near complete change of cast, not in itself a bad thing. The Daily Planet aspect is substantially downgraded and Lois is shipped offstage for most of the film, appearing only at beginning and end (it’s claimed that both Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman took exception to Richard Donner’s treatment, as a result of which Kidder was shunted off, and Hackman refused to appear), though Ilya Salkind has denied this).

Lois’s replacement is her greatest rival in the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman comics, Lana Lang, the girl from Smallville, Clark Kent’s teenage crush. She’s played by Annette O’toole and is consequently sweet, and the best part about this picture. Tellingly, Lana is more interested in Clark than Superman, reversing the roles of Lois, though she brings baggage in the form of six-year old Ricky, who restores that balance.

But Lana, and Clark’s obvious interest in her, is the understory, and the overstory is a disaster. It involves Richard Pryor (doing some low-key mugging and grinning and generally operating at one-quarter power) as Gus Gorman, unemployed layabout who discovers a genius-level talent for computer programming. Pryor may be a guest star but he’s obviously intended to be the lead so, given the man’s genuine presence, it’s pathetic to see him being given such a cheap script as this.

Gus comes to the attention of megalomaniac millionaire Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughn with the brave resignation of a good actor who’s realised that not even his legendary charm can animate a turkey of a role like this) and his unattractive younger sister and bulldog Vera (I feel sorry for Annie Ross).

Ross also has a ‘psychic nutrionist’ (‘she feeds my ego’, a line used in the book but cut from the film). Lorelei is played by Pamela Stephenson as a pneumatic blonde bimbo, who, naturally enough, is hiding a considerably high IQ (she reads Kant’s Critiqu of Pure Reason and disagrees with him, and if that isn’t one from the cliche drawer, then I can’t recognise a lazy gesture if I fall over it in broad daylight).

To cut a long story short, and avoid having to go into unending detail about the shit writing that burbles through the clumsy plot, Ross instructs Gus to help him corner the world’s coffee market by having him use the US’s weather station to manufacture a typhoon and destroy the coffee crops of Columbia, the only hold-out, only Superman intervenes to stop it. So Ross wants Gus to kill Superman by presenting him with a misshapen rock of artificial kryptonite, except that they can’t get a perfect analysis of kryptonite’s chemical make-up: there is 0.57% on unknown, for which Gus substitutes tar.

Tar K doesn’t kill Superman, it just turns him bad. Here is where the film truly shows its inadequacy. Superman turns bad. He wants to make a pass at Lana on her couch rather than save a truck-driver from falling off a bridge. He straightens up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, fer’ Chris’sakes, and, oh my gods the depravity, he gets drunk in a Metropolis bar and flicks peanuts at the bottles behind the bar, smashing them! Is there no end to the depths this hero has fallen?

(Actually, he does puncture a rogue tanker and create an oil-slick of approximately two hundred yards length that threatens the Metropolis seaboard despite no land being in sight in any direction, and he fucks Pamela Stephensonand I wonder what she thought about these two being treated as equivalents when she read the script? – so it’s not all impoverished imagination.)

All it takes is Ricky popping up in Metropolis to forlornly bleat at Superman to make a comeback and he does, courtesy of a fight in a junkyard between Superman and Clark Kent which the latter, after taking incredible punishment, wins. The fight is slow and overlong, though the first part of that is due to the limited technology of the time, but it does contain the film’s solitary psychologically penetrating line, when Superman throws Clark into a metal compactor, saying he’s been irritated by Kent and wanting to do this for a long time.

So Superman is back, as signalled by him getting his costume laundered, ready to tackle the four greedheads who, in the meantime, have built a supercomputer in the Grand Canyon. Two points about this ‘climactic battle’ that illustrate the level of stupidity and inconsistency on which this film is built.

Firstly, Gus – who has previously attempted to kill Superman face to face without the least level of qualm – breaks from Ross and Co because he thinks killing Superman is going too far. Second, this supercomputer can recognise danger and independently act against it yet it decides a container Superman is holding behind his back is completely harmless, when it’s an acid that, once heated, gets super-acidic and destroys the supercomputer from within. Where’s Julius Schwartz when you need him? He would never have let Gardner Fox get away with an idea like that, not that Fox was ever so stupid as to even try it?

I’m not going to go on any longer. Seen on a rainy Sunday morning in 2019, Superman 3 is a dozen times worse than I remember it. It’s stupid, petty and mundane, because neither writers not director have enough respect for their source material to even think of showing it as respectable in any manner, and certainly not seriously. Only O’Toole as Lana, and Chris Reeve, still putting his all into this dodgy material, are any reason to watch this film ever again. It was a franchise killer from the credits scene onwards (mass slapstick in Metropilis after Lorelei wobbles past in high heels, and completely unfunny at that: Kotzwinkle made it work, though). Only O’Toole as Lana, and Chris Reeve, still putting his all into this dodgy material, are any reason to watch this film evr again.

There was one more, though not produced by the Salkinds. I remember that as being worse that this film. When I get round to watching that, I’m seriouly hoping it hasn’t deteriorated as much as this has…

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King

Three Decembers, three parts of a story, three family trips. I’ll always remember The Lord of the Rings trilogy that way, for the moments at which the story ends for another year, and the moments of wondering how and where Peter Jackson will resume things.

As a film, The Return of the King is monumental, and that comes before the Extended Edition, which comes to almost four hours. It is not without moments at which the concentration wavers slightly, as it is bound to do on a Sunday morning, and on one on which days of perfect skies have cometo rain and thunder and greyness.

But the film gathers weight and dimension as it progresses, eliding into the High Fantasy mode, until it is not possible to resist its momentum, nor be moved by the stakes it presents. As such, I find myself less able to approach the film with any kind of critical eye. I am audience, drawn in, moved in so many directions, feeling the experience rather than responding intellectually. So many times and places in which tears gathered at the corner of my eyes.

Which does not mean that I can’t be critical, just that the film is awe-inspiring to a greater degree than its two predecessors, and that overall I do not feel it possible to do an adaptation of this part of the book that could be more faithful, and as effective, as Jackson and Co.

Changes there are, and plenty, but like The Fellowship of the Ring, these consist mainly of stream-lining, playing to the visual experience. Some things are missing, minor scenes and characters omitted. Some things are diminished: I would have liked to see more of Eowyn and Faramir’s falling in love, if only to see more of Miranda Otto, but this was downsized so as not to compete with Aragorn and Arwen, which is a bit more important.

The biggest omission is the Scouring of the Shire chapter, and like Tom Bombadil, I think on balance that Jackson was right. What works in the book won’t necessarily apply to film. By the time we get to the Hobbits’ return to the Shire, several chapters have passed, as has story time. Thus this can be thrown up as a sort of Last Battle without detracting from the true climax, the Ring going into the fire. That’s not possible in the film, even with the extended sequence of farewells Jackson employs. Instead, Frodo and Co return to an unchanged Shire, the undisturbable paradise, and this emphasises what Frodo cannot go back to.

The film started very cleverly with a flashback to Deogol and Smeagol – Andy Serkis looking and nearly sounding like Andy Serkis instead  of Gollum – which I liked very much. The Theatre version then picks up the story without reference to Saruman, Grima Wormtongue and Treebeard, all of whom disappear into complete silence, a serious omission in the case of the former.

We’d heard that Jackson had filmed an ending for Saruman that he’d left out of The Two Towers for length, and then left out of The Return of the King because it belonged to The Two Towers, causing a serious rift with Christopher Lee. It’s in the Extended Edition and Jackson’s right. It looks an feels wrong, it’s an unwanted appendage, a hindrance to the third film getting going. and it’s a pretty naff write-off of Saruman, switching his actual death in the Shire forward to a point where it has so much less context and inevitability.

The other major change, so far as I am concerned, is to the climax in Mount Doom. Jackson is utterly faithful, to a point, though I regret the loss of the line about ‘I do not choose to do what I came here to do’ in favour of the cheap and blunt ‘The Ring is mine.’ But once Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and gets the ring, it all goes wrong. Gollum capers and dances. He does it silently, which is a mistake immediately. And he’s so oblivious to his whereabouts, to anything but his Precious, that he capers over the edge, taking the Ring to its destruction, doing the one thing Frodo, at the very last, did not have the strength to do.

It’s a magnificent ending, a game-changer, The Frodo Principle, the hero who does everything he can, but who succeeds by getting the burden to somewhere where another can step in. But it’s not Hollywood. It’s not all-action, not the leading man’s triumph, and as William Goldman pointed oout, you go to protect the star. There must be nothing to diminish him, to make him complex. So Frodo gets up, wrestles with Gollum and both of thenm go over the edge, robbing Gollum of his last shred of responibility, undermining Gandalf’s foresight and Bilbo’s pity, and requiring a literal and entirely cheap cliffhanger to rescue Frodo.

I understand why they did it but, like Faramir in The Two Towers, I profoundly disagree.

Yet I am overwhelmed, every time I see the film. And this Sunday has been no exception. There won’t be a Film 2020, except maybe for a few holdovers, DVDs I’ve acquired since, but I’m going to organise myself a couple of Binge days, each trilogy, start to finish. And I would still love to see Jackson do something with The Silmarillion…