Film 2022: House of Flying Daggers


House

After my experience with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I was more than a bit trepidatious about approaching this thing but I needn’t have worried on that score: more than just being visible throughout, even in the night-time scenes, House of Flying Daggers was a visual riot throughout, light, bright, clean, vivid and rich in colours.

It’s a film with a glowing reputation, received with tremendous praise when it was released in 2004 and apparently having given Channel 4 it’s biggest ever audience when shown three years later. Yet though it was ebxcellent on the terms it set out for itself – one might say flawless – it ended up not quite disappointing me but rather failing to fully impress me the way I was looking for it to do.

The story is set during the decline of the Tang Dynasty, against a background of corrupt government and revolutionary factions, one of which is the Robin Hood-like titular House of Flying Daggers. Two Captains, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who have already assassinated the old leader, are ordered to identify and kill the new leader within ten days. Believing that Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind dancer working in a nearby brothel, is a member of the House, they contrive to arrest her then have Jin free her, intending that she will lead them to the House.

The story was set within a particular period of Chinese history, but I never got the feeling that this historical specificity was more than the traditoional Hitchcockian McGuffin. In part this may be been down to my lack of understanding of Chinese history, and the mnative audience may have derived a greater importance from that, but I doubt it was that great a factor. This was a martial arts film, a thing of action, perfectly choreographed movement, not just in combat but in an extraordinary dance scene early on, beautifully filmed, without CGI, with contained and controlled slow-motion – no Zack Snyder excesses here – and intent on dazzling the eyes.

But the problem inherent in this film was that it was an action spectacular. It dazzled the eyes, but that was really the only one of the senses it sought to dazzle. The period was an excuse to host a story that, in its first half, was not much more than an extended, episodic chase-and-fight scene. I couldn’t help, from an early stage onwards, wondering how the film differed, in that respect from any CGI-laden superhero film.

Once the film reached its halfway point, more or less, its nature transmuted almost abruptly, not abandoning the martial arts spectacle but instead leavening it with multiplre revelations, betrayals and other plot twists on the way to diverting it into a love story, based on the eternal triangle.

The first revelation I had seen coming, not with certainty but with a high degree of suspicion. Zhang Ziyi as the blind Mei was astonishingly convincing (before filming, she spent two months living with a blind girl, observing her). We knew the actress wasn’t blind but there wasn’t the least flicker of a suggestion that the character wasn’t. Yet, if only because my relative naivete about martial arts films wouldn’t let me belkieve a blind woman could do all that, I doubted all along, and I was right to do so.

Because Leo and Jin’s conspiracy to use Mei was part of a larger conspiracy masterminded by the House of Flying Dagger’s new leader, Nai, to draw out an open military force for a confrontation. Though as presented, the House of Flying Daggers onscreen were all female, Captain Leo was a mole, planted three years earlier, to set this plot in motion. And Leo was in love with Mei, and she with him (in Wikipedia it has them as betrothed but this wasn’t stated in any of the sub-titles), but in the three days she had been on the run with him, Mei had fallen in love with Jin.

Complications arose. Mei was supposed to kill Jin so he could not reveal Leo was a double agent, but she couldn’t. Instead, she released him, but refused to go with him. Except that, after a scene that stretched things out a bit too long, heralding an ending that got out of hand, she changed her mind and rode after him, only to be intercepted by the jealous Leo, hurling a flying dagger to, literally, her breast, and fatally wounding her.

Sadly, I thought the ending excessive and in some respects ridiculous. After waiting for her to catch up, an unnecessary chauvinistic touch that presupposed that the little woman had no choice in the matter, Jin comes back and finds Mei’s dead body. He and Leo fight, furiously, giving each other many wounds. Out of nothing, an amazing snowstorm appears, symbolic but unconvincing. The General’s troops surreptitiously approach the House of Flying Daggers but we’ve gone beyond the outcome of that. Finally, the fight ends the only way it could, with jin and Leo simultaneously giving each other fatal wounds.

Only they’re not fatal, any more than Mei’s dagger has been. Leo prepares to kill Jin with a Flying Dagger. Mei threatens to kill him with the dagger dragged out of her breast. Jin drops his sword, pleading with her not to do so, the dagger is the only thing preserving her life from her blood pouring out (I so could not avoid flashing back to John Cleese’s The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It). He limps towards Leo so he’s too near: if Leo throws his dagger Jin will be dead before Mei can retaliate. Jin throws his dagger. Mei drags her out and throws it. Not to kill Jin but to intercept his dagger. Only he’s faked throwing it, to get her to kill him, he’s only launched a globule of blood. Mei dies. The two ‘fatally wounded’ Captains live. Jin cries over Mei’s body, Leo stumbles off into the trees, and thankfully it ends there, the over-developed melodrama having quite ruined the film’s cohesion.

I was gratified to see that amongst the general praise for the film, plenty of critics did agree that it is about spectacle and overwhelming the audience to carry it over the weak story, so for once it wasn’t just me with the contrary opinion. Though I can understand the appeal to the film-msakers of the trapdoors thrugh which they wanted to send their viewers, in the end for me it derailed the film and led to an incompatible ending that failed to ever really make the emotions it depicted properly convincing. I shall retain the DVD, for now at least but, except for Zhang Ziyi’s grace and beauty, I doubt I’ll have much of a reason to watch it again. Curse of the Golden Flower is still, for me, the best movie to come out of China.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 24 – Alfie


Alfie

24: ALFIE: 1966. Director: Lewis Gilbert. UK. Romantic comedy drama. Michael Caine. Millicent Martin. Julie Foster. Jane Asher. Shirley-Anne Field. Vivien Merchant. Eleanor Bron. Shelley Winters. Alfie Bass.
Adapted by Irish-born Bill Naughton (1910-1992) from his 1963 play (itself originally a BBC Third Programme radio play). There was also a 1966 novel, which was slightly different from the movie – the character Frank, for instance. Budget was $800,000. Box office was $18.87million. Made at Twickenham Studios, St. Margarets, West London. Music by Sonny Rollins (jazz saxophonist); title song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David – sung by Millicent Martin (UK distribution), and Cher (US). It was a major UK pop song hit for Cilla Black. Initially a number of actors were considered for the role of Alfie – Richard Harris (1930-2002); Laurence Harvey (1928-1973); James Booth (1927-2005), and Anthony Newley (1931-1999). Eventually Terence Stamp (born 1938), who was playing the role on Broadway, recommended his friend Michael Caine. As well as both being fellow Cockneys, the two had acted together and became good friends in Willis Hall’s play The Long and the Short and the Tall. Although I always first associated Caine with Alfie, he had, by then, already appeared in Zulu (1964) and The Ipcress File (1965) – in fact Alfie was his sixth film. Michael Caine was born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite in 1933, at Rotherhithe, so technically not an East End Cockney, as this is South-East London, across the Thames, in the Borough of Southwark. His father was Anglo-Irish, by profession a fish porter (I’m assuming at Billingsgate Market), his mother a cook and charwoman. Young Maurice served in the army (National Service, 1952-54) and saw action in Korea – an experience which coloured his subsequent politics, British nationalism against communism, mostly Tory supporter. He initially took on the stage name of, first Michael White, then Michael Scott, in about 1953, but changed it to Michael Caine in 1954, apparently taking the surname from the Humphrey Bogart movie The Caine Mutiny. However, bizarrely, he didn’t officially change his name – on his passport, for instance – until 2016, over 60 years later, then because of getting stopped at airport security with his ‘Micklewhite’ name. Although married only twice – to actress Patricia Haines (1932-1977) from 1955 to 1962, and Skakira Baksh from 1973 – in between he had a number of high-profile girlfriends, from Edino Rong (1961-64), Natalie Wood (1965-66). Bianca Jagger (1968-70), and Jill St John (1971). As an actor, I’ve enjoyed quite a few of his films over the years, and several, as well as Alfie, number amongst my favourite. He was knighted in 2000, at a time when knighthoods were being given out like confetti. I disagree with them on principle. Actors get other rewards.
The cast were: Michael Caine as Alfie Elkins; Shelley Winters (American actress, 1920-2006) as Ruby; Millicent Martin (actress/singer born 1934) as Siddie; Vivian Merchant (1929-1982, married to Harold Pinter from 1956 to 1980) as Lily Clamacroft; Alfie Bass (1916-1987) as Lily’s husband Harry; Jane Asher (born 1946, girlfriend to Paul McCartney 1963-71, later married cartoonist Gerald Scarfe) as Annie; Julia Foster (born 1943) as Gilda; Shirley Anne Field (born 1936) as Carla; Eleanor Bron (actress and author, born 1938) as the Doctor; Graham Stark (1922-2013) as Humphrey; Murrey Melvin (born 1932) as Nat; and Sydney Tafler (1916-1979) as Frank. Shirley Bassey was uncredited as a bodybuilder’s student girlfriend.
The film follows the adventures of the title character, a young, womanising, Cockney Casanova, working in London as a chauffeur; totally self-centred, enjoying sexual favours with married and single women, young or old, but often treating them with disrespect, referring to them as ‘it’. He is a anti-hero, everyman, immoral, roguish, a working-class jack-the-lad-type, pilfering petrol and money from his employer, encouraging his girlfriends to do the same. He is not always intentionally malicious or cruel, just lacking in any empathy, but at the same time Naughton the writer, and Caine the actor, manage to make the character sympathetic, showing his inner vulnerability, denied being able to see his son, using sex as a substitute for meaning or purpose to life, eventually finding pain and loneliness, especially after the abortion sequence with married Lily, when he comes face to face with the consequences of his casual carnal actions. So, this is no fun and frolics sex romp, or juvenile fantasy, but an emotional rollercoaster, made more personal in that Alfie breaks the fourth wall, talking to us, the audience, attempting to justify his actions. In the end, with himself being dumped by the girlfriends he had grown fond off, he can only turn to us, and ask “What’s it all about?”
The idea of breaking the fourth wall would later be used by another likeable rogue, antique dealer Lovejoy (the wonderful Ian McShane) in the 1986-94 UK television series of the same name.
Geoff Andrew, writing a later critique for the Time Out Film Guide, is a little sniffy: “Given the full swinging London mod movie treatment of the day, Bill Naughton’s funny and rather moving play emerges as a terribly dated (and one might add terribly misogynistic) account of a Cockney lecher’s selfish seduction and abuse of a series of compliant females. Of course he gets his comeuppance, in the ending that has all the moral weight and sincerity of a DeMille sex ’n’ sawdust spectacular.”
To say the movie is “terribly dated” seemed rather a silly criticism – it was made in 1966. Of course it is dated. Michael Keaton’s version of Batman would be ‘dated’ compared to the mindless, CGI adaptions since, but does that make them better? I think not. All movies are ‘dated’ eventually, in that they reflect the time and place of their making. While ‘lecher’ is a bit strong – it rather implies some old pervert chasing schoolgirls, not an oversexed young man working his way through his address-book of ladies – so I would equally question ‘misogynistic’. The dictionary definition is the hatred of women. Alfie is egocentric and rather selfish, and he might lack respect or much feeling, but he doesn’t actually hate women – quite the opposite, he wants to sleep with them, and he just can’t stay faithful to anyone for long. In that he reflects the typical alpha-male of that time – or since!
There was a UK-made sequel, in 1975, entitled Alfie Darling, with singer/musician Alan Price (he of O Lucky Man!) in the Alfie role. It did at least make a profit – budget at £500,000, box office receipts coming it at £2.5million. On the other hand, who remembers it today? Time Out Film Review concluded “the film look[ed] increasingly like a advert with no product to sell.” Not seen it – don’t want to see it!
Yet again – as with Psycho or Breathless – the original Alfie suffered the indignity of a totally needless remake in 2004, with Jude Law, who was seemingly going through a phase of Michael Caine worship – a few years later, in 2007, he starred in a remake of Sleuth, him playing Michael Caine’s original 1972 role, and Caine playing the Lawrence Olivier role. Alfie was now in Manhattan – ugh! – although some filming was also done in Liverpool, Manchester and Tilbury standing in for New York. It bombed, and perhaps deservedly so – costing $60million, with a box office return of just $36.2million. Lesson learned? Apparently not. Hollywood remain obsessed by sequels and remakes.

Film 2022: Excalibur


Excalibur

I dunno. I enjoyed this film so much when I saw it in the cinema forty years ago, and again in later years when seen on television at least once, but this morning’s viewing was very different. Excalibur, an adaptation of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur directed by John Boorman, came over as a terrible mess, ill-lit, with implausible dialogue, at least one case of a WTF accent, and definitely overlong. Which latter was an irony in that my DVD was of an edited version, a thing of 134 minutes duration, as opposed to the film’s original 160 minute length.

Which was in itself somewhat confusing, as the edit, to get a PG rated Certificate, is supposed to be 119 minutes long, according to Wikipedia. Either way, the film struggled to hold my attention and I must have paused it nearly half a dozen times, not all of them to deal with a bit of a tummy bug.

The film’s inherent problem, which the script, by Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, never even came close to surmounting, was that thestory of King Arthur and the legendary sword, Excalibur, is not a story, but a cycle. It’s a myth-cycle, the only serious British one around and, like similarly mythic cycles, such as the Norse myths, it is actually a series of stories, strung together like beads on a wire, with an ultimate progression but without the direct connective tissue between episodes that informs a story. As such, it bumbles along from tale to tale: Uther Pendragon rapes Igrayne under the disguise of her hudband, the Duke of Cornwall. Merlin takes away the baby, Arthur. Arthur is fostered by Sir Ector until he pulls the Sword from the Stone. Guinevere. Lancelot. Morgan le Fay, here called Morgana. Mordred. Throwing the sword back to the Lady of the Lake.

If you’re British and were fed these myths as an elevated form of fairy story, you know all these touchpoints, even if only from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, thugh for this version of the legendarium you can substitute the Carmina Burana for Bibbity Bobbity Boo. And Boorman ticks these off in more or less the order they crop up. This does to some extent dminish the dramatic tension one expects from a film, since the audience knows what they’re getting in advance. That was exactly the same for The Lord of the Rings, the difference being that Peter Jackson brought that to life and John Boorman, who ironically developed the look of the film out of an aborted wish to film Tolkien’s big book, doesn’t begin to do so.

Part of this is the uncertainty of tone throughout the film. It begins with a deeply unwise dimly lit introduction to Uther Pendragon, which is so dark that it’s very difficult, if not impossible at times, to work out what is actually happening. In fact, one of the few things that can be made out with any real clarity are the breasts of Katrine Boorman, playing Igrayne as she’s being shagged enthusiastically by Gabriel Byrne as Uther, in full armour. Even in 1981, and substantially more shallow then than now, this was so improbable – I mean, the discomfort, for him as well as her, as well as the lack of facility for fucking of doing it in body armour – that the reality of the film slipped sideways quite a bit. It must also be said that whilst these were breasts that were pleasant to view, they were the breasts of the Director and Co-scripter’s own daughter, which does cast something of a disturbing pall over the scene.

The armour is also a fundamental part of the film’s inability to decide on a consistent approach. Boorman is depicting a High Romance look, literally Knights in shining armour, full body, bright, bulky and a bit clunky, but instead of the elegance, fantasy and unhindred grace of the look, he layers this with mud and grime and blood, not to mention clumsy, staggering, visibly exhausting fights. Monty Python did this in their Holy Grail, but they were aiming at a deflating comic opposition, whereas Boorman isn’t directing a comedy.

Though you’d be forgiven for wondering as soon as Nicol Williamson turns up as Merlin. Dressed in blacked, with a close fitting silver skullcap he never takes off, stomping around on a staff topped by two stylised snakes, not to mention what looks like an oxy-acetylene torch in one night scene, Williamson is a joke from the moment he opens his mouth and starts talking in an accent that is by itself a tour of the regions, not to mention a collection of inflections, speeds and oral mannerisns that would have made him a shoo-in for a guest spot in The Goon Show, if that had still been going. Williamson sounds like someone who is making it all up as he goes along, whilst simultaneously being unable to believe what he’s being asked to say.

But that could be said for the whole film. There isn’t a line of dialogue that sounds as if it could be spoken by a normal human being, yet it also fails to convince as high fantasy by failing to make itself into a convincing alternative. And it should also be remarked that Nigel Terry, who plays Arthur from his teens to what should be his late fifties whilst being 35 himself, starts off with a comic West Country yokel accent that gradually flattens itself out the longer, and more ragged, the film becomes.

Given that this DVD is approximately 25 minutes shorter than the theatrical version I originally saw, there didn’t seem to be any holes in the ‘story’. The only thing I actually noriced that had been cut out was a brief shot of Helem Mirren’s breasts through a very translucent lace top in the scenewhere she, as Morgana, seduces her half-brother Arthur to conceive their incestuous son, Mordred (played as a young boy by another Boorman offspring, Charley).

I have to admit that the casting was good, full of young actors and actresses whose careers were just beginning. Not just Byrne and Mirren, but Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds and Patrick Stewart had roles to play, whilst Guenevere was played by the lovely Cherie Lunghi, who did her best with a role that was weak and wet, with the substance of tissue paper. And, when you could see it, the landscapes – in #ireland – were enjoyable, though the age of the print did suggest that if it was worth someone’s economic while to do so, which I doubt, it would greatly benefit from a digital remsastering.

No, what once attracted me to this film, has, with the exception of Mesdames Boorman, Lunghi and Mirren, wholly evaporated. The silliness of Williamson’s accent, his complete detachment from anything to do with the rest of the film, was criticised at the time, and now I can see how destructive it is to the appeal of what, it the right hands, could still make a bloody good epic film. Mr Jackson?

Uncollected Thoughts: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness


Doctor_Strange

It’s been over two years since I last went to the cinema, enough time that I can’t remember what it is I watched, except that it was probably a comic book movie. Of course, two years ago I retained more enthusiasm for such phenomena than I now have. And it felt really odd to be doing something like that after such a long time, even more when I was going to a 6.30pm performance.

That choice was down to it being the only 3D perfprmance of the week. I’d watched the first Doctor Strange movie in 3D, of which it had made tremendous use, and was anticipating a similar effect: Strange’s world of magic, and the prospect of hurtling through multiple, potentially fractal worlds, is peculiarly suited to this. But they warned me that the 3D quipment was giving them problems, and they couldn’t guarantee it would work, and yes, I ended up watching in 2D. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film too much.

The film’s only been out a week and theaudience was meagre, well short of two dozen, one of whom got up and walked out after two minutes, which was a bit harsh. I’d done my usual avoidance of reviews, not that this had prevented me from learning that in addition to Strange himself, the film also co-starred the Scarlet Witch and America Chavez, the latter being a character I’ve never ever read. I’d also seen afleeting reference to the film being too mired in Marvel continuity, playing to the specialist rather than the general audience.

What this meant was that, as far as I could tell, the film followed directly on from the acclaimed WandaVision tv series, none of which I’ve seen. Still, it didn’t hamper my comprehension of the film in more than any minor degree.

But was it good? Was it fun? Was I going to be saying, Oh, wow! at any point?

Well, my first reaction was split between dismay at, in a film as overloaded with CGI as this was going to be, how utterly artificial and unconvincing the white streaks in Benedict Cumberbatch’s hair were and the more serious wish that I could be seeing him as Sherlock, without the unconvincing American accent.

As for the film overall, it seemed to start in practically the middle, though this was just a dream sequence, introducing young Ms Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) and killing off Strange, though this was a version from another Universe. We then cut to ‘our’ Universe, where Sttrange is attending Christine Palmer’s wedding (Rachel McAdams), when it’s interrupted by a Lovecraftian monster chasing Ms Chavez, requiring our Strange’s assistance, also that of Sorceror Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong).

It seems that Ms Chavez has the power to travel across the Multiverse, albeit without knowing how or being able to control it. Somehow is pursuing her, trying to steal that power, killing her in the process. That someone is Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), former Avenger. As depicted in the comics and introduced in WandaVision, Wanda has been deprived of her two sons, who in this reality were actually illusory. Having corrupted herself by use of an evil magical tome called the Darkholm, Wanda is searching for a reality in which she can be with her children.

As a theme, it was obviously intended to create a degree of sympathy. Wanda’s obvious distress at being severed from her children, her actions sringing from her love and instincts as a mother, were easily understandable and in the early part of the film were intended to keep us in her wheelhouse. But not for long. As the Scarlet Witch, Wanda outranked every magic wielder going put together, and yes that included the Sorceror Supreme and the Master of the Mystic Arts. The more they resisted her quite reasonable wish to drain Ms Chavez, the bigger, more implacable and ruthless a monster she became.

It was a simple enough spine for the film, allowing for an easy one-line description of the plot. I’m afraid, though, that the execution of this was very much in comic book fashion. There was very little sense of a story, in the meaning of a developing narrative whose sequences built one upon another to a conclusion dervied from logical progression. Instead, we got sequence after sequence, expending linearly, complexity thrown after complexity with a concentration upon immediate gratification, which went on and on and on, like the kind of plotting that passes for story-telling in the Twenty-First Cenntury. The film lacked both a sense of build-up and a sense of integrity. Sequences could have been removed without detriment to the plot, or others substituted in their place, without making much of a difference. It was all flash and dazzle, and between Avengers: Endgame and now I’ve come to crave a bit more from even comic book films.

The standard of acting was high, though the longer the film went on the less was required. The film delved deeper into horror than we’re used to, not unwelcomely, and the traditional Marvel flippancy was much less in evidence. The film ended with a nod to its sequel, though as Cumberbatch wants a break from acting, who knows how long that will take, by first having him develop the third eye that comes from using the Darkholm and getting a bit corrupted, whilst the mid-credits sequence introduced Charlize Theron as Clea.

The one thing that would get me to watch the film again, apart from a functioning 3D projector, would be Elizabeth Olsen. In her Scarlet Witch costume, which covered her from neck to toe, she was a magnet for my eyes. Something about her made her look hot as hell, in the same manner as Brie Larson in her Captain Marvel outfit and Cate Blanchett as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok. Though she had increasingly less to do acting-wise as the fighting escalated, Wanda finally came to see herself as she’d become, understanding by just how much she had lost the sons she had sought so desperately, a sequence that Olsen nailed perfectly, leading to her literally bringing the world down on herself.

As well as the film, for the first time in a long time I was exposed to cinema ads and trailers. The ads were moronic – advertisers’ opinions of the public have really dropped, haven’t they? – and the trailers bored me, two more comic book movies and Tom Cruise’s Top Gun sequel. One of the trailers was for the next Thor film, wwhich includes the Guardians of the Galaxy. This looked like more traditional Marvel fare and I may go see that, but I will be going to see DC’s Black Adam when it finally appears: a film that introduces the Justice Society of America and particularly Dr Fate is a must.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 23 – Alphaville


Alpha

23: ALPHAVILLE: 1965. Director: Jean-Luc Godard. France. New Wave science fiction fantasy. Additional title: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (French with sub-titles). Eddie Constantine. Anna Karina. Howard Vernon. Alim Tamiroff. Laszlo Szabo.
Screenplay by Jean-Luc Godard, apparently in part inspired by Paul Éluard’s Capital of Pain (La Capitale de la douleur, 1926); producer André Michelin, music by Paul Misraki, photography (in black and white) by Raoul Coutard. Screen time: 99 minutes. Budget was estimated to be $220,000. Box office takings unknown.
Typically there were numerous influences – from obvious ones like the Paul Éluard book of poems (surrealist poet, 1895-1952); to George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four; to Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950); French, right-wing writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline; classic 1940s film noir; Argentine poet/short story writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986); to the Dr Mabuse movies. In fact, having presumably conceived the basic idea, Godard barely had a script, often improvising as usual. The story goes that, hoping to get German financial backing, assistant director Charles Bitsch mocked up a draft script, which Godard agreed to, without even looking at it. In fact, it never got used, and later the Germans demanded their money back!
Alphaville is, in a way, another James Bond spoof, but with a clever French twist – Jean-Luc Godard gets aged Eddie Constantine to reappraise his private detective Lemmy Caution persona in a dark film noir-cum-science fiction setting, actually filmed almost entirely without props or special effects, using existing locations in night-time Paris – the Hotel Scribe, and the Electricity Board Building – the latter an example of concrete and glass modernist architecture, comparative new – and hence ‘futuristic’ at the time.
Lemmy Caution was a fictional FBI agent-cum-private investigator created by novelist Peter Cheyney (1896-1951), in ten books from 1936 to 1945. There followed fifteen French-made movies from 1952 to 1991, in which American-born actor and singer Eddie Constantine (1917-1993) played the leading role, eventually becoming completely associated with the character. Born Israel Constantine, in L.A. of a Jewish Russian father and Polish mother, Eddie spent most of his career in Europe – France, then Germany. His filmography was from 1953 to 1993. In 1956 he helped Edith Piaf translate her songs into English. His screen version of Lemmy Caution was a “suave-talking, seductive, smooth guy” and he “turned his accent and perceived American cockiness to his advantage”. He was “James Bond before James Bond.” Godard, however, had him as a world-weary, rather gloomy character, insisting he not use make-up. Effectively this finished Constantine’s career playing Lemmy, although he did play a mafia boss in the British movie The Long Good Friday (1980, with Bob Hoskins). Later, following his third marriage, he relocated to Germany, and Godard got him to play Lemmy one last time, in the movie Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991), set in Berlin, following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
British Time Out magazine, which can sometimes be rather sniffy about science fiction movies, actually did a good summing up: “One of Godard’s most sheerly enjoyable movies, a dazzling amalgam of film noir and science fiction in which tough gumshoe Lemmy Caution turns inter-galactic agent to re-enact the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in conquering Alpha 60, the strange automated city from which such concepts as love and tenderness have been banished. As in Antonioni’s The Red Desert (made the previous year) Godard’s theme is alienation in a technological society, but his shotgun marriage between the poetry of legend and the irreverence of strip-cartoons takes the film into entirely idiosyncratic areas. Not the least astonishing is the way Raoul Coutard’s camera turns contemporary Paris into an icily dehumanised city of the future.”
Novelist and critic Kim Newman, in 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die, goes into more detail: “In the future, secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) cruises into Alphaville, which is either a city or a planet, in his Ford Galaxie, which is either a car or a spaceship. His mission is to find and perhaps liquidate the missing Professor Von Braun (Howard Vernon). First, Caution runs into Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), an agent who has gone native, and then the mad scientist’s daughter Natacha (Anna Karina), who has never heard the words ‘love’ or ‘conscience’. Alphaville is run by a croaking super-computer that has made honest emotion a capital crime, insisting on mass executions carried out in an eerie swimming pool. He-man hero Caution naturally sets out to destroy the computer (by feeding it poetry), and incidentally woos the fragile Natacha, awakening her dormant emotions. Jean-Luc Godard, powerhouse of the French nouvelle vague, set out to create a science-fiction film without expensive sets or special effects. Shooting in cleverly-selected Paris locations, he discovers the seeds of a totalitarian future in contemporary hotel lobbies, neon signage, office buildings, and bureaucratic waiting rooms. Alphaville’s relationship with science fiction was initially parodic, as is Godard’s affectionate borrowing of trench coat characters and gun-pulling poses from hard-boiled Franco-American pulp (Constantine had previously played author Peter Cheyney’s Mike Hammer-ish sleuth Lemmy Caution in a run of thick-ear thrillers). However, considered as a product of the times – when Philip K. Dick was exploring similar themes in ever-more-ambitious novels – Alphaville now looks a lot like proper sci-fi, to the extent of influencing a run of adaptions (from François Truffaut’s take on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to Ridley Scott’s Dick-derived Blade Runner). Like many Godards, Alphaville deliberately runs out of plot after an hour and has two characters sit in a hotel room arguing for minutes. As in Breathless and Contempt, this free-ranging conversation, with Caution shaking Natacha out of zombiehood, ought to be a dead spot but is actually a highlight, confirming Godard as almost equal to Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the cinema of conversation, the film shows a wry humour and a poetic seriousness (sometimes silliness), and is a rare futuristic vision that simply does not date.”
Idiosyncratic as this review is in places, it does hit on what sets Alphaville apart as a sci-fi movie. Comparatively unknown (perhaps even now) to mainstream British or American cinema audiences, it is ‘typically’ French in its inclusion of poetry, flowery dialogue, highbrow philosophies and literary references, yet its images remain strangely memorable. By comparison to today’s sci-fi movies (or movies in general) Godard made his on a shoestring – not for him studio mock-ups or massive set-pieces, elaborate models of futuristic cities, or CGI. Instead, he improvised with lighting, editing, clever photography – and it still worked! His soulless, future city is as real and believable – more so – than Ridley Scott’s 21st century L.A. in Blade Runner or Batman’s Gotham City. At the same time is the playful humour – secret agent Lemmy Caution is 003 of ‘The Outside’. His car is a ‘Ford Galaxie’ (said with a French accent.) He poses as a journalist, Ivan Johnson, of Figaro-Pravda. The computer is called Alpha 60. It’s creator is Professor Von Braun (after the German V2 rocket scientist), but also known as Leonard Nosferatu – after the 1920s vampire movie. Henri Dickson succumbs to a ‘First Seductress Third Class’. Brainwashed Alphaville agents are sent out to other ‘galaxies’ to ferment “strikes, revolutions, family rows, student revolts”. Godard’s original working title apparently was Tarzan versus IBM.
Anna Karin (1940-2019, born Hanne Karin Bayer) was a Danish-German avant garde actress, also director, writer and singer, and Godard’s 1960s muse. As well as Alphaville (perhaps her best known film outside of France), she appeared in his movies The Little Soldier, A Woman is a Woman, My Life to Live, Band of Outsiders, and Crazy Pete. In 2008 she directed the French-Canadian movie Victoria. She and Godard were married from 1961 to 1965. Off-screen the marriage was tumultuous, fighting and arguing in public, him going off and disappearing for days at a time. She married three more times, finally to Dennis Berry in 1982, She was regarded as a style icon in the 1960s. Her filmography was from 1961 to 2008.
Beyond any influence on cinema, “Alphaville” was the name of a track on Brian Ferry’s 2011 album Olympia, issued as a single 2011. Other music tributes include William Parker’s Double Quartet 2007 album Alphaville Suite; Kelly Osbourne’s 2005 One Word; the cover of Robert Palmer’s 1972 album Sneakin’ Sally Thru the Alley; and the German synth-pop band Alphaville (from 1982), also known as Forever Young. One of their albums was titled Afternoon in Utopia (1984). Danish director Christoffer Boe founded Alphaville Pictures in 2003. A suburb of Sao Paulo, in Brazil is named Alphaville. It was also mentioned early in Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel Satanic Verses, as well as in a 1967 Star Trek episode.
My comments from 31/07/1989:
Alphaville (1965) from Jean Luc Godard, is a science fiction thriller, stylish, obscure, surrealistic and spoofy. There are elements of American film noir (secret agents or Philip Marlow-like detective), sci-fi pulp magazines, references to Dick Tracy, the anti-utopias of Nineteen-Eighty-Four, or Brave New World, or We (with the governing super-computer ‘Alpha 60’ and the robot people…) I’m reminded too of the French comic strip artist Bilal – an Englishman would have probably made it either more comic or more visually fantastic (Brazil is a good example), whereas Godard very cleverly used buildings and locations in contemporary Paris, selectively intersected with symbols, neon lights, other images to create a futuristic impression of glass lifts, hotel corridors, glimmering stylish glass receptions, freeways, computer control rooms. The Russian Tarkovsky achieved the same in Solaris with his photography of Tokyo, but Godard uses Paris as a continuous set with few studio-created extras. A ragged Eddie Constantine (secret agent Lemmy Caution) arrives in Alphaville from the ‘Lands Without’ supposedly as a reporter for Figaro-Pravda, but really to hunt down Professor Leonard Nosferatu, alias Von Braun (two excellent joke names) who seemingly controls Alphaville with the computer. Art, poetry, love, feelings, even basic questions are unknown here, words are wiped out (a new edition of the ‘Bible’, really a dictionary – like the Newspeak Edition number 11 in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four). Dissidents are either used by Alpha 60 or shot in swimming pools or electrocuted watching a film. “I’m very well. Thank you. You’re welcome,” is the catch-line, the standard introductory comment, replacing hello or goodbye.
Anna Karina plays Natasha, the pretty robot-like daughter of ‘Van Braun’. Godard uses broken cuts and the repetitive theme cord of music as in A Bout de Souffle very effectively and he cleverly evokes a futuristic city without the dire models or special effects or studio props used by British or American film makers. The photographer is Raoul Coutard, and it’s in black and white, which again sets the image (colour would tarnish or normalise) also I think it has a film noir feel, although much of it is filmed at night to conceal any sense of familiarity.
Although the comic-strip spoof humour is funny, it does distract and perhaps undermine the seriousness of the theme – freedom of the individual vs. the human ant-like society controlled by scientists in white coats and emotionless omnipresent super-computers. Rather like Belmondo’s overdramatic spoof-like death scene in A Bout de Souffle, which spoils an otherwise clever, fresh and entertaining film, so the comic-strip element and the James Bond-like ending (agent Caution kills Nosferatu, the robot people collapse as the computer goes crazy, agent escapes with girl out of the city) rather ruins what could have been a first-rate film. Played straight, without losing the humour of the illogical ‘normality’ of Alphaville’s ethics – the ritual greeting, the “seductress third class” hotel hostesses, the indoctrination lessons and the omnipresent Alpha 60 (its rasping artificial-sounding mechanical voice in the police headquarters corridor counting the closed doors – “occupied, occupied, free, occupied…”) Still as a thriller, but with the ending being more ambiguous, Alphaville perhaps still a threat to the ‘Lands Without’, I think might have made it a stronger, more thought-provoking story, rather than the childish ‘good defeats evil’ Batman-like with a few socks to the jaw and some well-aimed bullets. The images and Alphaville itself is brilliant, dialogue has depth still better than many American films of the period, so it’s a shame the story couldn’t have been more subtle, perhaps more worthy of the visual effects.
Further comments made: 04/08/1989
Postscript to Godard’s Alphaville…Eddie Constantine was an American bit-part actor who fetched up in Paris and who starred in several “Lemmy Caution” films – Caution being not a Godard creation, but a detective by a British writer. Godard used this character as his ‘hero’ is even more of a spoof. Another source Godard plundered was Ian Fleming. Secret Agent Caution is ‘Zero Zero Three’ of the Lands Without. Another book on science fiction films (from which I got the Constantine bio) also quotes Cocteau’s Orpheus – the “Don’t look back” in the escaping car, but I personally think the Bible is a more immediate influence there – they are escaping the doomed city after all. Anna Karina was, it seems, Madame Godard at the time – hence her regular appearance in his films.
Eddie Constantine had what could only be called a ‘lived-in’ face as he got older, yet still apparently romancing beautiful, younger women in his movies. I rather thought he looked a bit like former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, another smooth rake!

Film 2022: Better than Chocolate


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Let me be honest. A Canadian actress named Christina Cox guest-starred in an early episode of Due South. As I often do, I checked her credits in imdb, discovering that a few years later she had starred in a 1999 film called Better than Chocolate. Further investigation established that this was a lesbian film. I was intrigued by the brief description of the film. Sometimes, the curiosity to check out a thing that’s caught your eye in passing becomes overwhelming, which is why I bought a cheap DVD copy off eBay.

And yes, continuing to be honest, I was partly attracted by the lesbian theme. But, watching the film this morning, I got more than I expected for whilst there are a couple of sex scenes, including one startlingly erotic one involving the film’s central couple body-painting each other then rolling across a canvas to create a piece of art akin to Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, these are not the point of the film, nor do they dominate it.

Instead, Better than Chocolate, it’s title taken from a Sarah McLaughlin song, is an intelligent, thoughtful, happy, romantic, frequently deliberately comic in tiny, delicious moments. It has a storyline that permeates the film, and which has some marvellous shifts to it, but it’s also a naturalistic portrayal of a mainly lesbian community, in Vancouver, that is open and clear without once being strident. I simply liked all the main cast of characters, for themselves.

Basically, Maggie (Karyn Murphy, all red curls, heart-shaped face and shy smiles) is a 19 year old drop-out from Law School working in a Lesbian bookshop, owned and run by Frances (Ann-Marie MacDonald, a noted Canadian novelist). Frances is frustrated at having a shipment of books, mostly lesbian but including Little Red Riding Hood, seized by Customs despite Supreme Court judgements that these are not obscene. Maggie’s problem is that her mother Lila (Wendy Crewson) has phoned up out of the blue, having discovered, variously, that her husband, Maggie’s stepfather, has been cheating on her for over a year, and that Maggie has dropped out. Maggie, who is bunking on a couch in the back of the shop, lies about having a big apartment and, before she can stop her, Lila has invited herself and Maggie’s 17 year old brother Paul to stay.

In this turnoil, Maggie meets Kim (Cox), an artist travelling the country in a beat-up and highly decorated van. Both actresses are wonderful here, but Murphy especially. The attraction is instant, but the pair handle the stages of growing importance to each other without words, and by their faces. Kim is the more defiantly out of the two, forward without being aggressive, Maggie clearly smitten in all senses of the word. They retire to Kim’s van, to talk, oblivious of the passing of time, until the van is hauled away, they in it, for illegal parking. Since Kim hasn’t got $125 to redeem it, she moves in with Maggie, who has sublet an apartment.

Then follows the painting scene and, of course, the ladies are in the shower, together, when Lila and Paul arrive, a day early.

The thing is, Maggie may be out to her community but she’s not out to her mother and she is desperate to postpone the evil moment as long as possible. Lila gets the bedroom, Maggie and Kim to ciuch, Paul the hall. The ladies are still in that first flush of can’t-keep-their-hands-off-each-other and it is impossible for them to have vigorous and lusty sex silently. Paul overhears (I’m surprised Montreal didn’t) and discovers his sister’s sexuality. Lilsa remains oblivious.

Let me now introduce Judy, the only cast member to have a surname, which is Squires. Judy is played by Peter Outerbridge, and no, this time the name is not a diminutive of Petronella. Judy is a pre-operative transexual, cast off by hyr parents, a gentle, thoughtful, wise and pacifist figure, who is in love with Frances, who keeps resisting him, believing herself to be primarily asexual.

Judy, having divined through Maggie’s disparaging words, that Lila must be very lonely, indeed isolated, befriends her, counsels her and, unltimately, helps her repair her relationship with her daughter. Judy is buoyed up by a first contact from hyr parents in two years, offering to buy her a condo. S/he settles on one in the new complex where Lila now works as a kind of gofer/dogsbdy/office assistant.

Lila is in some ways the central figure in the film. She doesn’t understand Maggie, whose choices are bizarre and foreign to her. She was once an opera singer but gave it up, and now derides the whole thing, because she couldn’t be the best. She is oblivious tp not just Maggie and Kim’s sexuality, but also to Judy’s true status. When Maggie finally summons up the pluck to come out to her, she doesn’t get the chance because Lila keeps interrupting her and deflecting the ‘conversation’ onto her own conservative concerns, such as her dependence upon chocolate, because, let’s face it, at her age she’s never going to have sex again.

That is, until she discovers the box of (mainly purple) electric dildoes thar belong to the apartment’s owner, who lectures on safe sex, and especially the battery-powered one that, well, wiggles. A lot of delighted laughter ensues.

Lila is happy for once. Unfortunately, that precipitates the film’s sudden descent into a chaos that threatens to destroy everything that’s come before. She makes coffee for three and takes the tray in to Maggie and Kim, who are lying on the couch entwined, wearing only their underwear. So now she knows, or at least is getting there. But Maggie has lost her temper at her mother’s constant attempts to run her life for her. When Lila asks if she loves Kim, Maggie refuses to answer. And Kim leaves, angry and hurt. She hocks her stuff, gets her van and drives off, despite Judy telling her what a mistake she’s making.

Lila runs to Judy for sympathy, only to learn his actual name is Jeremy. Believing that hyr parents were reconciling to who and what s/he was, Judy had invited them to stay. Their letter not only refuses him but males it plain that the condo was a Kiss-Off, payment to go away and let them pretend s/he never exists.

Meanwhile, Maggie is distraught, Kim’s trying to call her from the road without success, Frances gets tipped off that she’s going to be raided and all her videos seized as obscene and Maggie loses her rag and on an if-they-want-obscene flare, sets herself up in the shop ewindow as an art display, naked but for two signs, one hung across her breasts proclaiming ‘Obscene Lesbian’ and the other across her loins proclaiming pervert.

Frances immediately calls the Press. But whilst she’s gone, a group of skinheads, who’ve alrady hassled Maggie near the film’s beginning, see her and start being menacing, shouting ‘Dyke’. The arrival of Lila and Judy, the former desperate to get some clothes on her daughter, sends them packing but they return, throwing fire-sticks through the window. Which, as Tony the cafe owner next door is trying to cowboy connect a new gas cooker, results in an explosion.

And then it suddenly all goes well again, in a fashion that, naturalistically, is too abrupt abd comprehensive to be realistic but what the hell? The film’s long since absorbed us in an optimistic glow that it was in danger of destroying by allowing hatred, anger and intolerance to interfere, and a reset back to the warmth is most welcome. Lila and Maggie accpet each other. Frances finally decides she loves Judy. Kim comes back.

And we exit on an American Graffitti style montage, telling us what happened to everyone after that, and some long credits, and that wrapped up a film that I thoroughly enjoyed. Yes, it was lesbian cinema, and as such I was, on many levels exvluded from it, not being a part of the culture it depicted, which felt whole and entire. In its own way, it was like watching anime: I have no native instincts for the subject. But the film offered a wide window and did not seek to exclude, and it did the one thing all films ought to do but so few bother, it showed its characters as people, first and last and foremost. I’d recommend it to anyone.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge -My 40 Favourite Movies: 22 – Dr No


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22: DR. NO: 1962. Director: Terence Young. UK. Spy thriller. Sean Connery. Ursula Andress. Joseph Wiseman. Jack Lord. Bernard Lee.
Adapted from the 1958 Ian Fleming novel of the same name by Richard Maibaum (US producer, playwright and screenwriter), Joanne M. Horwood (Irish screenwriter), and Berkely Mather (John Evan Weston-Davies. UK author). Music was by Monty Norman. Screen-time was 109 minutes. The producers were Hersche ‘Harry’ Saltzman (1915-1994, Canadian theatre and movie producer) and Albert Romolo ‘Chubby’ Broccoli (1908-1986, American producer – his daughter Barbara later inherited the Bond franchise). Saltzman had been reluctant to make a movie of the Bond books, but equally disinclined to sell the rights to Broccoli – hence their agreement to a partnership. Initially the project was something of an unloved orphan. The budget was set at just $1.1million – United Artists reluctantly put up $1million, with an extra $100,000 for the climax. Again, the production design budget was a mere £14,500, plus another £6,000 raised by the producers. Sean Connery was paid just £5,000 – “hulky and cheap”. Val Guest was one of the directors who turned down the job, before it was offered to Terence Young. Wolf Mankowitz wrote an early draft, but then quit, asking his name to be removed from the credits as he feared the movie would be a disaster. Eventually, box office takings worldwide were nearly $60million. It was to become an endless money-spinner.
Author and critic John Russell Taylor, writing about the James Bond phenomenon in Movies of the Sixties (1983), was not very complimentary: “With hindsight, it is amazing that the James Bond books took so long to arrive on the screen – not was it for want of trying. The creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming, began writing the books with the possibility of filming very much in mind, and at least one of them, Thunderball, published in 1961, was originally conceived as a film scenario. Fleming probably had no idea what a goldmine he had struck upon when he wrote the first one, Casino Royale, in 1953, and the film rights were disposed of for a modest sum soon after publication. It was to be followed by another James Bond book regularly as clockwork every year until Ian Fleming’s death in 1964. Little by little the books built up their sales until their success on screen was a foregone conclusion. They are all efficiently constructed thrillers: normally Bond spends about two-thirds of the story making his way into the exotic arch-villain’s clutches and the rest rather simple-mindedly fighting his way out of them, destroying his adversary in the process. James Bond, agent 007, with a licence to kill on Her Majesty’s secret service, is a 14-year-old schoolboy’s fantasy of sophistication. The ideals he embodies are to do with preserving one’s cool and knowing about food and wine, even while behaving as the perfect sportsman towards miscellaneous foreign cads and bedding a succession of indistinguishable girls resembling lush Playboy centrefolds.”
I was in my middle teens, and already with a more sophisticated taste in literature than the average 14-year-old, when I first read the James Bond books – eventually all of them, even For Your Eyes Only, his collection of short stories. The films came first, the books second. However, I never liked either Fleming as a writer, or his so-called hero. The early novels especially, Casino Royale and Moonraker, were awful; badly written, with two-dimensional characters and elements of sadism. James Bond was both a snob and a thug in a posh suit, not even especially believable or interesting – certainly not a very credible spy. I preferred Len Deighton’s more cerebral spy novels with the nameless narrator, who became ‘Harry Palmer’ in the movies The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and The Billion Dollar Brain, as played by Michael Caine. However, Deighton’s books were too complex and clever, and didn’t translate very successfully to the screen.
That said, the early Sean Connery James Bond films were entertaining, and for the most part followed the basic plot of the books. The popular consensus of many Bond movie aficionados is Goldfinger is the best, with From Russia With Love next. On the basis of the financial success of Dr No, both, of course, were big budget movies – From Russia With Love (1963), cost $2million and made $70million, and Goldfinger (1964), had a budget of $3million and box office takings of $125million. One rather silly plot feature in Russia has Bond descending from the British Consulate into the underground water cisterns to spy on the Russian (e.g. Soviet) consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. While the two consulates are near to each other, they are actually located in Pera, which is on a hill. The Ottoman water storage cisterns are across the Golden Horn, in Istanbul proper. However, my favourite James Bond movie is still Dr No, the first movie, although the sixth book. Saltzman and Broccoli had acquired rights to all the books except Casino Royale – hence why we had the awful 1967 abomination and it wasn’t until 2006 that that Daniel Craig version was made in the ‘official’ Bond franchise. At the time, 1962, there were still some legal problems with Thunderball, resulting in the happy choice of Dr No, perhaps both financially (given the reluctance of United Artists to come up with a bigger budget), and that it was set in Jamaica, Fleming’s backyard – literally, as much of the movie was shot near his estate of ‘Goldeneye’. Fleming was a frequent visitor to the film set, so perhaps – in retrospect – this was the book-to-film that really did have his seal of approval. When Thunderball was eventually made, in 1965, the budget was a colossal $9million, with a box office return of $141.9million.
Sean Connery was to became the definitive Bond for many, myself included. He brought an element of menace to the character which was completely lost during the Roger Moore years. Again, we have a time capsule of Jamaica, which itself only achieved independence in 1962. The plot still has a freshness about it, an originality – while the scriptwriters added a certain an element of black comedy – perfectly accentuated by Connery – that blunted the often brutal violence and casual sex. People are shot out of hand – the MI6 agent Strangways and his secretary (amateur, one-off, bit-part by Dolores Keator, whose house they were filming in – I hope the blooded floor rug wasn’t hers) – Bond shoots Professor Dent, various Dr No underlings, while the ‘dragon’ – a giant motorised flame-thrower – incinerates Bond’s black Jamaican assistant, Quarrel – the first of a number of quite nasty deaths in the movie series – think Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) painted gold in Goldfinger, or Corinne Dufour (Corinne Cléry) torn to bits by Hugo Drax’s dogs in Moonraker. In the books, Strangways, Quarrel and CIA agent Felix Leiter had all appeared before, in the novel Live and Let Die (1954). In the Dr No novel, Bond’s love interest Honeychile Rider was staked out, to be eaten by crabs, but when making the movie the crabs proved uncooperative and lethargic, so the director opened for Honey Ryder (as she had become, played by Ursula Andress) to be simply slowly drowned instead – not nearly as imaginative or nasty! The biggest difference between book and movie was the ending – in the book Dr No was smothered to death under guano (birds’ droppings), but in the movie we already have the template for virtually all Bond movies thereafter – the ‘big bang’ of the villain’s secret lure being spectacularly blown-up by Bond activating the nuclear reactor into meltdown. In 1962 that was comparatively original (a nod towards Kiss Me Deadly perhaps?), but eventually it became – like much of what passed for a plot in later Bond movies – samey and monotonous. Yawn. Even the last reel – Bond and girl escaping together, cue having nooky – became a cliché.
Nearly 60 years on, both Connery and Moore are no longer with us, likewise the original ‘M’ (Bernard Lee, 1908-1981), ‘Q’ (Desmond Llewelyn, 1914-1999), or Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell, 1927-2007). The franchise grinds on, but I lost interest long ago, with Octopussy (1983), so even before Roger Moore’s final effort, A View to a Kill (1985). Moore never took the role seriously, and it showed. His Bond was lacklustre, smirky, lazy, repetitious. George Lazenby’s Bond (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969), wasn’t bad, at least again it followed the book pretty much, if only he hadn’t been arrogant son-of-a-bitch and full of himself off-screen. Connery made a one-off non-Eon Bond, a re-make of Thunderball entitled ironically Never Say Never Again. The producers were Jack Schwarkzman and Kevin McClory. It wasn’t bad. Budget was $36million and box office was $160million, so no dud financially. There was obviously still a hunger for a Connery Bond. MGM now have the film rights. Sean Connery then reappraised Bond one last time for Eon again in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), but which already now bore no resemblance to the original book. I admit to having no desire to watch any of the Timothy Dalton Bond movies (1987-89), nor Pierce Brosnan (1995-99), or Daniel Craig (2006-15). Another break, and Craig’s latest, perhaps aptly named No Time to Die, was supposed to be released in 2020, but is now scheduled for 2021. Personally, I think the franchise should have been killed off long ago, certainly by the early 1990s, or perhaps replaced with ‘Jane Bond’. Even if we are re-entering a new Cold War, times have changed. Bond would now either be a mercenary, a simple-minded gun for hire, or sitting with a lap-top, engaged in cyber warfare. The silly, mindless destruction of various locations around the world is tedious and tiresome. Where will James Bond, the most un-secret secret agent and mass-murderer, trash next? Please, put us out of our misery.
My comments from 22/10/1988:
Doctor No (1962), the first Bond film with Sean Connery, and the one film which remained fairly true to the book. Thereafter, and especially with debonair but ‘Saintly’ Roger Moore, the Bond movies bore less and less resemblance to the Fleming originals in either plot or mood until eventually only the titles were left. The books, mediocre literature as they were, had a thread of character development, a continuity from one to another, which the films completely sabotaged, partly by taking them mixed up and sequentially at random. Doctor No was several books in from the first Bond book Casino Royale. Jamaica, Strangways and Quarrel had all appeared before, in an early book. One has the impression in the film that the last hectic and rather silly 20 minutes were done in haste, or that several reels were missed. The character of Doctor No, like all the later villains, is a cardboard megalomaniac, bordering on being certifiable (although, to be fair, that was also very much Fleming’s style, having the subtly of a Cold War comic strip), but in the film his demise is strangely without much drama or tension, unexpected only in happening so quickly after the lengthy build-up. The subsequent escape of Bond and the girl is totally illogical, but the formula (used in almost all Bond movies since) of the spectacular sets being blown up, seems as if the scriptwriter got tired, or the producer did a hatchet-job in the cutting-room.
A later film with Roger Moore did a much more gripping version of virtually the same theme – as Bond simultaneously sends the nuclear reactor into critical (thus providing the obligatory fireworks), diverts the laser-beam or whatever which threatens the American spacecraft or missile (in Doctor No it was a radar beam), rescues the latest girl from death (or a fate worse than death, in the nastiest but most imaginative way) while exterminating the super-villain. As the post-Connery Bond films became so repetitious as to merge in one’s memory into a single bland canvas of caricature, I cannot even recollect which film this was! But the finale was definitely a rerun of Doctor No. [It was actually The Man With the Golden Gun.]
One other observation: Connery was without doubt the best Bond, and the truest in appearance and mood to the character of the books, although [one story is that] Fleming disliked him because he was Scottish! Compared to Moore (who appeals to Fleming’s snobbery) you are aware how in the earlier films, 007 was really just a thug in a dining-suit who takes pleasure in his job of ruthless executor of the Queen’s enemies. “Why did you do that?” wails Ursula Andress after Connery has viciously stabbed a black Doctor No henchman and thrust his body underwater in the jungle river. “Because I had to.” He answers before spreading fresh mayhem elsewhere. By comparison Moore was too immaculate, to frivolous, too urbane. Connery’s dead really were dead!

Film 2022: My Neighbour Totoro


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It’s becoming a bit of a habit to follow an Almodovar with an anime, and in this instance the gulf between last Sunday’s film and today’s could not be greater. My Neighbour Totoro came with a world-wide reputation that, once again with a Studio Ghibli film, I cannot more highly endorse.

The former Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter, once pronounced that story is conflict. Every story had to have a conflict in it. Will Chihiro rescue her parents? Will Nausicca save the Valley? But he was wrong with My Neighbour Totoro, which neither has nor needs a conflict to keep you glued to its gentle, idyllic, absorbing world for the 82 minutes the film runs.

The setting is post-War Japan, sometime around 1955 (hey, I was born then!), though I got this from Wikipedia rather than the cultural signs that the native audience would have recognised. The Kutasake family, consisting of Archaeology Professor Tatsuo and daughters Satsuki (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and Mei (Elle Fanning) are moving to the country, painted in beautiful, inspiring, living shades of green backgrounds, to be nearer to the hospital where mother Yasuko is a long-term patient. Their new house is a bit decrepit, but the family take to it immediately, especially the girls, who are delighted to think that it is haunted.

Which it is, by small cartoonish balls of soot with big white eyes, soot-sprites that live in old abandoned houses, but who leave as soon as the house becomes lived in, as opposed to merely occupied. It doesn’t take long for the girls’ joyful appreciation of their new home, with its immediate access to a country of fields and rice-fields and forests in which they can run and play, to have the soot-sprites move on.

The girls, aged about ten and four respectively, are the heart and soul of the film, as is only right and proper. Satskia has school, where she’s made a best friend already. There’s a boy her age, Kanto, who’s avoiding her like the plague. His grandmother becomes an honorary Granny to the girls. Satskia is all long legs and short dsark hair, Mei a smaller bundle of energy, her brown hair tied up in bunches either side of her head, her face soft with puppy-fat but endlessly expressive. They are as real as can be, realer than most live action children. Their life is far removed from the one I led at their age(s) but at the same time it was still the same. I identified with them, down to my toes. Miyazaki captured exactly what it was like to be that young.

And the family reduced to three, with a parent removed to hospital by long-term illness was one I was intimately familiar with, albeit from an older age than Satskia.

For fully half an hour the half-seen cluster of soot-sprites aside – the dirt of neglect brought to spiritual life, the notion of animism – the film is simply an observation of life in that time and circumstances. The mother’s hospitalisation is the only shadow, but it is a minor one, dispelled by the eternal sun. Nothing truly bad can happen. Then Mei sees a tiny spirit creature, a small white bundle of fur like a bottom-heavy Moomintroll, a soft toy in Japanese design come to half-invisible life.

She follows it down natural tunnels in the undergrowth, the brush and the forest surrounding the giant camphor tree. Another, bigger, darker, starts to lead it. Mei follows in eager fascination and the kind of concentration only an excited child possesses. She falls down a hole, not a rabbit-hole but of equal standing, and lands on the belly of a sleeping gigantic version of the two creatures. From it’s roars, which though massive never feel threatening, she names it Totoro. That mouth, so wide and so full of teeth, and the wind of its roaring, should be frightening but the mouth is equally a gigantic smile. Fearless Mei, who boasts of never being afraid and isn’t, cuddles it, and sllepds in her turn, though when she’s found by Satskia and her father, Totoro is gone.

They believe her, however, and Satskia longs to see Totoro herself. Her chance comes at night, waiting at the bus-stop in the rain. Their father is late and Totoro comes to stand at the stop with them, dwarfing them, absurd and solemn, protected only by a leaf on his head. Satskia offers him her father’s umbrella, which the creature accepts with content. It looks silly, but silly with dignity.

When the bus comes it is not the one carrying their father. Instead it is the catbus, bounding along on a dozen legs, grinning to outdo the whole of Cheshire, with eyes that beam like headlamps. Totoro boards it, still proudly carrying the umbrella.

All is well. Mother is getting better. She is to be allowed home for the weekend. Mei and Satskia help Granny gather vegetables, wonderful, fresh vegetables that can help anyone get well. Mei determinedly grabs a stalk of corn for her mother.

But perhaps a shade is needed. A telegram requiring Tatsuo to contact the hospital is the cancellation of Yasuko’s weekend home: ‘a slight cold’. The girl’s are upset. Mei is a bundle of need, a little girl who wants her mother. Satskia, a little older, tries to take it in her stride, be pragmatic. But she flares up in anger at her little sister, snapping at her and half-accusing her of wanting their mother to die. Mei runs away, clutching the stalk of corn, wanting to take it to the hospital.

There’s a panic. All the neighbours turn out. Satskia, blaming herself, runs herself into the ground trying to find her sister. The crisis even has her and Kanto talking to each other normally. Finally, she thinks of the Totoro and finds her way into the wood to plead for its help. Gloriously she and it rise to the topmost branches where theTotoro summons the catbus. Wonderfully, it’s destination plates clicks over to ‘Mei’ and it roars across the countryside, riding telegraph wires, until it finds the exhausted and hopelessly lost little girl. And then, even more miraculously, the destination plate changes again: the hospital.

Where Yasuko is sat up in bed talking to Tatsuo, and all is well. It was only a slight cold. She’s determined to get well and come back to her daughters and spoil them rotten. She thinks she sees them, smiling in from the tree. Outside the window there is a stalk of corn. On it is scratched ‘To Mother’.

Sometimes, film-makers set out to create a world of wonder and delight, of peace and content and happiness, only to make the despair geater in comparison when the reversal comes. Hayao Miyazaki set out to create a world of wonder and delight, of peace and content and happiness to show us that such things are beautiful and desirable, without being sentimental or unreal, to give us islands upon which we can relax, away from everything that is rotten and bad in the world. My Neighbour Totoro does exactly that. It puts the real and the fantastic side-by-side, living in peace and harmony. I would love to live in a world like that.

Once again, I expect there are subtleties and nuances, and maybe a few blatant things that I do not see because I don’t come from Japan, but I bless Miyazaki’s art and skill in making such films as this wide opn to someone like me to love, and adore, and cherish. More, please.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge -My 40 Favourite Movies: 21 – The Day The Earth Caught Fire


Day-The-Earth-Caught-Fire-poster-1

21: THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE: 1961. Director: Val Guest. UK. Science fiction. Edward Judd. Janet Munro. Leo McKern. Arthur Christiansen.
The INCREDIBLE becomes Real! The IMPOSSIBLE becomes Fact! The UNBELIEVABLE becomes True! So said at least one poster.
Screenplay by Val Guest (Valmond Maurice Grossman, 1911-2006, director, screenwriter) and Wolf Mankowitz (1924-1996, writer, playwright and screenwriter), for which they received the 1962 BAFTA award for Best Film Screenplay. The editor was Will Lenny. It was made in black and white, with certain scenes tinted orange-yellow. Cinematography was by Harry Waxman. Running time was 98 minutes. The budget was £190,000. It made a profit of £22,500. It was originally released as ‘X’-rated, only over-16s allowed. In the UK the distributor was British Lion Films Ltd., and in the USA by Universal Pictures. Typically, the US version had church bells dubbed at the end, implying the world was saved. The original Guest/Mankowitz ending was deliberately open-ended and ambiguous. Val Guest had difficulties trying to persuade British Lion to finance the project, eventually offering to put his profits from his 1959 movie Expresso Bongo as collateral.
At the end of the 1950s, beginning of the 1960s, UK film and television saw another upsurge in science fiction. The BBC ran Fred Hoyle and John Elliott’s A For Andromeda and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough in 1961-62, the former still believable in its subtle remix of a potential alien takeover from within, exploiting our petty thirst for power, prestige and knowledge. Several other serials followed (all, of course, still in black and white), almost all the examples being earthbound and UK-centric, with intelligent, character-driven scripts. I would argue this was a difference between much of the UK and US science fiction films from the 1950s onward. The British stories put the emphasis on the depth of characters. The Day the Earth Caught Fire might be the usual hyped title, but, not only is the newspaper office setting interesting and rather unusual (if not unique) for this genre, but the three main characters are believable, especially Edward Judd’s character, Express journalist Peter Stenning, made bitter and rather cynical by his divorce and separation from his son, teetering on becoming an alcoholic. He has a past, he has emotional baggage, whereas in so many American movies (not just in the sci-fi genre, notably in crime dramas also) the characters appear to be without any back-history or past – they just seem to exist in limbo for the duration of the movie. For me, a classic example of this is the murder mystery Laura (1944), where the 35-year-old New York detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), apparently just falls in love with the Gene Tierney title character – totally unbelievable! More modern movies have what, again for me, is another flaw – often the so-called ‘hero’ characters are simply unlikeable. British science fiction writer and sci-fi ‘New Wave’ advocate Brian Aldiss preferred the apocalyptic novels of J.G. Ballard and Sam Youd (pen name: John Christopher, not to be confused with the movie director), to that of John Wyndham, but I found the Christopher and Ballard characters utterly unlikeable. I found myself having no interest in them, whether they lived or died. Again, the three central characters of The Day the Earth Caught Fire are such that we can relate to them; we, the audience, can care about them, wish them to survive – even Stenning, who starts to discover new hope, a new purpose to his life. Edward (‘Eddie’) Judd (1932-2009) was born of an English father and Russian mother in Shanghai, China (so just two years younger than Ballard, whose childhood was also associated with that city), and his filmography was from 1948 to 1988. In 1964 he played the character Bedford in the UK adaption of H.G. Wells’ novel The First Men in the Moon. He also featured in the oddball UK sci-fi movie Invasion (1966), as Dr Mike Vernon, where the ‘invading aliens’ were apparently two, rather attractive, Japanese females in tight rubber body-suits. He also appeared in the 1973 Lyndsay Anderson movie O Lucky Man! However, it would seem that off-screen he had certain elements of the Stenning character, as he was described by others as “a pain the ass”, “self-opinionated” and “his own worst enemy”.
Australian-born actor Reginald ‘Leo’ McKern (1920-2002), played the equally cynical Express science editor Bill Maguire, perfect casting, and who has the immoral line about politicians – “The stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards!” Born in Sydney, NSW, he lost his left eye at age 15 whilst training to be an engineering apprentice. He moved to the UK in 1946 when he married fellow Australian actress Jane Holland. One of their daughters, Abigail, later played ‘Liz Probert’ in the Rumpole stories. His acting career was from 1944 to 1999, moving from Shakespeare to movies and television. He appeared in the British television series The Adventures of Robin Hood in the 1950s, and The Prisoner in 1967, but his most famous, best-loved role was that of Old Bailey barrister and QC Horace Rumpole, in John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey – originally a BBC Play For Today in 1975, then over another 44 episodes for Thames Television: season 1 (1978), season 2 (1979), season 3 (1985), season 4 (1987), season 5 (1988), season 6 (1991), and season 7 (1992). John Mortimer (1923-2009), was himself a barrister, as well as playwright, dramatists and author. He had originally wanted Alistair Sim for the part, but unfortunately “he was already dead”, and afterwards he admitted eventually McKern made the part his own. Apparently, McKern was frightened of flying, so travelled to and from the UK to Australia by cargo-ships, giving him time and peace to read scripts!
Janet Munro (1934-1972), was born Janet Neilson Horsburgh, but took her acting surname from her Scottish comedian father’s stage-name of Alex Munro. Her acting career was from 1957 until 1972. Her early filmography was with Disney in 1958, and she played opposite Tommy Steele in 1959. Her first marriage was to actor Paul Anthony (‘Tony’) Wright, from 1956 to 1959. In 1963 she married actor Ian Hendry (1931-1984), who played Dr David Keel in the original, first season television series The Avengers – his part, playing opposite Patrick Macnee, was later taken by Honor Blackman. Janet and Ian had two daughters, Sally and Corrie, and Janet took a break from acting 1964-68 to be with her family. She and Hendry divorced in 1971. She died a year later of a heart attack. Val Guest remarked “Janet’s life was a disaster. She didn’t became an alcoholic until she met Ian. She tried too hard to keep up with him.” The Day the Earth Caught Fire is perhaps her best remembered film, playing Jeanne Craig, typist/temporary telephonist at the British Met Office, who Stenning meets there whilst trying to obtain temperature data, and who eventually helps him reveal the real cause for the freak climate conditions. Their relationship begins rather brittle, eventually developing into affection and love. Out of several memorable episodes together (for instance, having a picnic in Battersea Park just as the fog rolls in over London), probably the best is her in the bath, rescued by Stenning from the apartment invasion by crazed pre-hippie beatnik types. Janet is big-eyed and sexy, seen alternatively in striped two-piece top and shorts; in a towel only; in a clinging sweat-soaked dress; and several internet film stills (claiming to be deleted footage) showing her naked breasts (in shadow).
Playing the Express editor – named as ‘Jeff’ Jefferson in the movie (was that a nod to Hitchcock’s photographer hero in Rear Window, or just coincidence?) – was Arthur Christiansen (1904-1963), who was the real-life Express editor from 1933 to 1957. He also starred in another Val Guest movie 80,000 Suspects, in 1963. Also featured was a young Michael Caine – all 30-odd seconds of him – playing a London policeman trying to direct traffic away from rioters – but uncredited. As I remarked when I watched it again in the 1980s, I wonder how much he got paid for that?
I personally think it is one of the two best UK early 1960s sci-fi movies – the other being The Village of the Damned (1960), directed by Anglo-German Wolf Rilla, from the 1957 John Wyndham novel The Midwich Cuckoos. However, there is still a critic’s snobbery towards such movies. Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die doesn’t include either, but does include such mind-numbing ‘gems’ as The Nutty Professor (1963), A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and the Muppet Movie (1979). Val Guest wanted the movie to be as “documentary[-like] as possible. I wanted it to be authentic.” To that end he apparently recreated the Express office interiors in precise detail at Shepperton Studios (Christiansen was adviser on authenticity), while the scenes actually filmed outside the Express Building in Fleet Street (depicting a semi-derelict London teetering on breakdown), necessitated the police closing the street for periods of two to three minutes at a time, meaning “scenes had to be rehearsed and shot with military precision”.
One website remarks it is the “most accomplished of all British science fiction films [and] one of the great London films.” And, indeed, both on location, and hinted at in studio mock-ups, we get delightful, tantalising glimpses of 1961 London. The Express Building, at 120-129 Fleet Street, between Shoe Lane and Poppin’s Court, was – and still is – one of the most distinctive in the locality. It was built in 1932, by Herbert O. Ellis and W.L. Clarke, in the Art Deco/Streamline Moderne style, comprising a black vitrolite and clear glass street exterior. The Express eventually left in 1989, and later Goldman Sachs were there until 2019. It contrasts in style and mood with its near-neighbour the Telegraph Building (formerly known as Peterborough Court), at 135-141 Fleet Street, which dates from 1927-28, but built in a heavier, monumental Art Deco/Classical style, looking much more old fashioned. While some of the matte images might seem rather fake and unsatisfactory to today’s audience, used as they are to computer graphic imagery, some of the location sequences are still masterful – the wrecked cars, broken or boarded-up windows, DANGER signs on the pavement, barriers blocking the side-street outside the Express office, are still impressive achievements. The film footage of Battersea Park funfair (opened in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, but closed in 1974), are now a wonderful visual record of what was once a major London attraction. Filmed between May and July 1961, ironically – given that in the story by then (with the earth tilted 11º off its axis by the two simultaneous American and Soviet H-bombs at the two poles) the thermometer already supposed to be up in the 90s Fahrenheit, on the day of filming temperatures suddenly became unseasonably colder, so cast and crew were freezing, not sweltering! There followed the fog scene, with batteries of fog-machines around the park – then cut to views of the Thames, Battersea Power Station, and an ariel shot of the Houses of Parliament, shrouded in thick ground mist. Another scene is Trafalgar Square during a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) rally. Guest combined then-recent news reels with a staged demo featuring Judd present. The then Broad of Trade building in Horse Guards Avenue stood in for the Metrological Office, but other views included the BBC Broadcasting House; people praying in the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral; Chelsea Bridge; the Cenotaph in Whitehall; Piccadilly Circus; Hampstead Heath Underground station; Richmond Park and Epping Forest (with clever genuine black and white footage of forest fires and fire-engines). The water queues, supposedly at a parched Hyde Park, was filmed in the studio. Some of the matte backgrounds worked better than others – the view along Fleet Street towards Ludgate at the beginning works quite well. The view of the River Thames reduced to a trickle was perhaps less successful. But, given the limitations of special effects at the time and – more important – the budget (this wasn’t Hollywood), the movie still delivers its punch. One interesting location sequence features Stenning and Bill Maguire walking along an alleyway which leads out into Fleet Street, immediately opposite Shoe Lane and the Express Building. In the film this is the location of ‘Harry’s Bar’, the journalists’ favourite ‘watering hole’. This was in the rather grandly named St. Bride’s Avenue, actually a short pedestrian-only thoroughfare leading to St. Bride’s Church. On some maps this second alleyway, running eastward, but parallel to Fleet Street, is known as St. Bride’s Passage, a much more logical name, given its narrowness. Guest said that they did interior shots actually in Harry’s Bar, which seems to imply it really existed. The more famous El Vino, another Fleet Street watering hole, is further west, opposite Fetter Lane. It would be interesting to try and access a street directory for the 1960s. If Harry’s did exist, it’s long since gone.
60 years on, it’s not just the “cracking dialogue and believable characters” that makes this film still so watchable, but just how topical it still is. In the Guest/Mankowitz story it is the foolish consequences of Cold War nuclear rivalry that causes the earth to tilt on its axis, and generate a world-wide climate catastrophe. With our own man-made climate change, we may yet see London sweltering in endless Sahara-like temperatures and Royal Parks going the way of Australian and Californian forest fires, but one thing the movie seemingly got wrong was the increased temperature would have melted the ice at the North and South Poles and Greenland (even if the H-Bombs hadn’t already done so), so Fleet Street would actually be vanishing under a fast-rising sea level – the Thames, far from drying out, would be swallowing up the low ground from Essex to Heathrow. The science, then, was a bit iffy, but the idea was good. The orange-yellow tint to the views of desolate London at the beginning and end serve to remind what the title said – we were doomed to die in fire.
One excellent assessment is from Joel Blackledge, on the website Little White Lies, date August 2016. He remarks how, over half a century later, the film still stuns today. “Once deemed too strong for general consumption, this apocalyptic sci-fi is as relevant and powerful as ever.”
He continues: “Though 21st century science fiction cinema has shown us many imaginative and terrifying possibilities for how the world will end, one of the most compelling apocalyptic visions ever arrived in British cinemas 55 years ago. At first, the premise of The Day the Earth Caught Fire sounds as schlocky as its title: simultaneous nuclear weapons tests have sent the Earth spinning towards the sun. However, veteran genre director Val Guest tells the story with authenticity that is striking even today. The film explores Atomic Age cynicism about the consequences of the Cold War, which was typical of disaster movies of the time. But instead of worried scientists or noble fire fighters, we see things from the perspective of Peter Stenning…a jaded journalist stumbling between a failed marriage, an alcoholic addiction and his exasperated bosses at the Daily Express. This choice of protagonist speaks to the films cynical sideways glance at the end of the world.
“When Stenning starts investigating strange meteorological events he uncovers the scoop of the year, along with a renewed sense of purpose – just as London starts getting very hot very quickly. At first the capital’s response is the same as it is any summer: slap on sun cream and fill every last patch of green space with boozy picnics. But when the water starts to run out and mist covers the city, panic sets in. Anyone who has experienced a British heat wave will recognise the trajectory: celebration turns to exhaustion and we are reminded that there is only so much hot weather than this island can tolerate. The [film] remains a fascinating and frighteningly believable depiction of London caught in a climatic and bureaucratic nightmare. Miserable queues for water rations line a dried-up Thames, while impassioned CND protests descend into violence. A mixed use of real locations and matte painting track a swift and slippery descent from bustling metropolis to hopeless wasteland.
“The business of journalism is told with authentic verve, from the perfectly recreated Daily Express offices to the smoky Fleet Street bar where the hacks spend most of their time. Real-life Express editor Arthur Christiansen even plays a version of himself, and while his acting ability brings to mind David Lerner more than anyone else, he certainly lends an urgent credibility to the newsroom briefings. In 1961 London had not quite settled into its ‘swinging’ identity, and the film evidences anxiety about the decade ahead. The city’s hip youth are dangerously unpredictable; their reckless abandon is so fierce that they have water fights in the middle of a draught. Yet there is a similar scepticism towards politicians, denounced by one character as ‘stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards’. Pig-headed in their militarism and reductive in the euphemistic platitudes they use to calm the populace, the off-screen establishment are disdained in a manner that undoes the patriotic trajectory of British cinema of the 1950s. In general, Britain is depicted as a fragmented place where threads of togetherness are fragile, and the lie of nationhood can come apart in the face of disaster. Heroism is in small supply, but it does quietly persist in some cultural traditions: keep your cool, maintain perspective, and hold your drink despite insurmountable forces of catastrophe. It is a smaller, snarkier, and more British take on disaster than film audiences have become accustomed to.
“Perhaps understandably given its age, certain aspects of the film have not dated well – namely the gender politics – but a warming world still has much to learn from it. It is grimly appropriate that the film’s 55th anniversary should fall in 2016, a year when madness, crisis and intolerable heat have returned to Britain with aplomb. It’s also the year that the British parliament decided to renew the controversial nuclear programme, Trident, and though their decision may not throw us spinning towards the sun, the consequences of nuclear war are no less terrifying than they were half a century ago. In its final scenes, The Day the Earth Caught Fire turns from monochrome to a scorched yellow tint, as if the sun is burning up the film itself. A chilling ambiguous climax ends unusually without a single credit or title card. Instead there is just a fade to black, ushering in a future that could spell deliverance or destruction for the entire planet.”
Another six years on, in 2022, and the chaotic political madness is even greater, the pompous nationalistic flag-waving more prevalent, the effects of climate change more obvious (yet still being denied or ignored by so many of our so-called decision-makers), and even the nuclear issue is back – the British government – despite facing an economic crisis – wants to double our nuclear weapon capacity. Blackledge is right: this was a film ahead of its time, intelligent and grown-up, a complete contrast, not just to its contemporaries, but actually to so many, much-praised movies before and since.
Time Out magazine, by contrast – perhaps because of their aversion to the more right-wing Daily Express connection – were rather sniffy in their review: “Thoroughly old-fashioned disaster film about a Daily Express reporter who learns that the earth has been tilted off its axis by the impact of two simultaneous H-bomb tests. Its ‘authentic’ newspaper setting looks quaint now, but there’s some effective atmospheric build-up to the big one as London swelters in fog and heat. Perhaps inevitably, given the period and the film’s medium budget, the ending is a cop-out.”
One would hardly expect a 1960s newsroom to look anything other than old-fashioned now – even pre-electric manual typewriters were still in regular use ten or fifteen years later in many offices – so the “quaint” comment is rather silly – one could make the same remark about any period drama – Jane Austen or Dickens – but I would question the ending being a ‘cop-out’. The Americans always liked a ‘happy’ ending – even in the 1950s movie adaption of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, and tacked on the ringing church bells – which George Pal had used in his awful adaption of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1953) – was probably par for the course, another example of that American fantasy that the USA will always triumph – send Bruce Willis up with a few H-bombs to drop on the sun! Better the ambiguous ending.
Given a great piece of marketing potential, I do vaguely remember the Express actually serialised a novelised version at the time. Even with the British movie version “World Saved/World Doomed” ambiguous ending, it must have a sold a few extra copies!
My comments dated 15/11/1987.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) was actually one of the better science fiction films, British made, of course, and I wonder how much they paid The Daily Express to use their name and even their [former] editor! That was in the days when The Express was still a half-good newspaper with readership! In fact I can remember when this first came out, the serialisation in the Express with illustrations by their resident artist, whose name I forget. A younger, pre-Rumpole Leo McKern (with his Aussie accent more pronounced) plays the science editor and Janet Munro doing her 1961 near-nudity bit. Impressive special effects for the time, even if in the final shots of London the wreckage was confined only to the streets it seemed – and a true cliff-hanger of an ending – world saved or world doomed? Rather like The Italian Job, we have to guess what happens next. Of course you can shoot holes in it – the earth is crashing towards the sun, but what happened to all the ice at the Poles? Wouldn’t London have been flooded rather the Thames bone dry? If it had all vaporised into cloud, that in itself would have speeded up the ‘greenhouse effect’. Also when water is rationed, can people still have a tub full in their bath? Well, Janet Munro does. In Tudor times a bath once a month was sufficient. It must have been a Tory government. One final goodie – young Michael Caine in a pre-Zulu/Alfie bit-part as a London policeman gets about 30 seconds and two lines. I wonder how much they paid him?

Film 2022: Live Flesh (Carne Tremula)


Flesh

Once again I am out of step.

Pedro Almodovar’s 1997 film Carne Tremula, or Live Flesh, based loosely on a 1986 Ruth Rendell novel, was well-received on debut and is held in high repute to this day. I couldn’t get into it at all. I found the seeming lead character idiotic and off-putting, the situations tenuous and confused and the main twist in the story, that precipitates a disastrous climax for everyone, to be completely out of character, its justification solely in the eyes of Almodovar, not in the character.

I said ‘seeming’ lead character because the film starts with an extended sequence featuring a cameo from Penelope Cruz as a pregnant prostitute giving birth to a son, Victor, on a bus in 1970, during a period of civil unrest in Madrid which has seen Franco’s Government suspend civil liberties. You get the impression Victor Plaza is going to be the central character, but Liberto Rabal is only third named amongst the central cast of five, behind star Javier Bardem as David and Francesca Neri as Elena.

The rest of the cast is made up by Jose Sancho as Sancho, an unstable, alcoholic, wife-beating, chauvinist pig of a policeman and Angela Molina as his long-suffering wife, whom he believes (correctly, it turns out) is unfaithful.

Jump forward twenty years and Victor is still at the centre of things. He’s fucked a junkie in a club toilet last week, his first sexual experience, and made a date with her for tonight that shr’s totally forgotten about and, when he tries to press her over it, she tells him to fuck off. She’s waiting for her dealer for a fix, he wasn’t much of a fuck, she doesn’t need this, you can understand her point of view, but he’s either obssessively in love with her just because she screwed him or he’s a self-centred, self-entitled, stupid little shit, possibly both, who cons his way into her place, refuses to leave without an explanation (she doesn’t want you, or are you incapable of figuring that out, asshole?) and when she produces a gun and orders him to leave, instead of getting a message that couldn’t be clearer if painted in twelve foot high red letters on the walls of Franco’s palace, Victor grapples for the gun, it goes off, he knocks her out and waits for her to wake up.

By this point I was not lost in admiration for the sterling personal qualities of Victor Plaza, indeed I w ould have called him a stupid wanker, after which the film had no chance of recovering me. This was further exacerbated by what follows. Enter two Policemen on night patrol, Sancho, the aforementioned absolute t**t, and his calmer, clearly more intelligent partner, David. They are called to the gunshots. Sancho is all macho stupidity and pissed off his head. Victor grabs Elena and holds her gun to her head, under the impression that he can get out of this. David’s calming everyone down, gets Elena free (meeting of eyes in slow motion) and is getting Victor to give up the gun when Sancho, tired of all this wimpy stuff, goes for it. They grapple, it goes off, David is shot, Victor goes to gaol for six years.

All of this is still only set up for the film. We get a brief update after two years, revealing that David has been paralysed for life but has become a national sports hero in the Paralympoics Wheelchair Basketball team, and that he and Elena – who has cleaned up her act – are happily married. But things don’t really start until Victor gets out of prison (we’re still concentrating on the third lead, remember). He’s inherited a soon-to-be-demolished prefab and 150,000 pesetas from his now-dead mother and he’s visiting her grave, coincidentally when a funeral is taking place. It’s Elena’s father, and he sees both her and David. He wants revenge…

At thois point we’re looking at moving into a conventional thriller, especially as Victor starts following Elena about.She’s worth money, she pays for and manages a nursery for disturbed children. Victor gets a job there, as a volunteer and, having returned himself into a Renaissance man in prison, is a massive success. He also creeps Elena out good and proper, though she can’t throw him out, much as she wants to.

David is equally, if not more disturbed by Victor’s re-reuption into their lives. Understandably, if incorrectly, he blames Victor for putting him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life and doesn’t want him anywhere near Elena. However, Victor demonstrates for him that whilst his was the finger on the trigger, it was Sancho who pressed it to shhot, because David was, at the time, screwing Clara.

How does Victor know this? Well, he’d picked a woman up who was late for the Benedetti funeral, starts a relationship with her which ends up with her teaching him how to fuck properly, even though she’s about twice his age, and of all the women in Madrid this could have been, of course it’s Clara. You can say that this is inevitable because without it there is no story or you could say that it’s contrived convenience.

Anyway, here’s Victor, still creeping Elena out every time she sees him, so much so that she applies for and gets a job managing a new hostel, this one for children with AIDS, just to get away from him. Leaving disturbs her. She’s sat outside in the cold one night and he goes out to talk to her, moving nearer and nearer in a not in the least creepy fashion, as he tells her she’s got nothing to worry about, he’d planned his revenge, which was to learn to become the best lover in the world, then he’d fuck her all night, the best fuck she had ever/could ever have, and dump her in the morning, despite her pleas for more (adolescent bullshit or what?)

This is the moment any credibility left in the film vanishes. It’s obvious that Victor’s little piece of bullshit gives Elena an erotic charge, so on her last night, she gets him to promise not to follow her in return for her submitting to this night of supreme fucking. It comes so far out of left field that you’d need to buy it a ticket just to get it back into the stadium, and that’s before the first thing she says to David (after she’s reluctantly showered the scent of Victor off herself) is that she’s been fucking all night.

Alright, he hadn’t told her about screwing Clara before he ever knew her, and she wasn’t best pleased to hear that, but there was nothing leading up to this to suggest that she would instantly hop into bed with a man she’s shit-scared of as an act of revenge. And, if we haven’t yet had enough self-aggrandising adolescent bullshit, Elena has only gone and fallen for Victoer, even though she tells

Alright, he hadn’t told her about screwing Clara before he ever knew her, and she wasn’t best pleased to hear that, but there was nothing leading up to this to suggest that she would instantly hop into bed with a man she’s shit-scared of as an act of revenge. And, if we haven’t yet had enough self-aggrandising adolescent bullshit, Elena has only gone and fallen for Victor, even though she tells David she wants to stay with him, because he needs her more than Victor does.

Uh-oh! Martyr complex. Never a good basis for marriage. But now the wheels are in motion. Just before this, Victor has dumped Clara, despite her having fallen in love with him. So, simultaneously with David and Elena, Clara’s leaving Sancho, shooting him on the way, though not seriously. David turns up with the photos of Victor and Clara he’s been taking all picture long, clearly intent on murder-by-proxy. Elena guesses this, gets all panicky over Victor. Everyone converges on Victor’s place, Clara first, writing a goodbye letter. Then Sancho, for a stand-off, gun to gun. Two shots ring out. Enter Victor. Clara’s dead, Sancho’s wounded and, retrieving his gun from Victor, kills himself rather than go on living without Clara. Another shot rings out, this time so that Elena, hastening to the scene, can hear it and stagger in fear.

Christ almighty, what fucking awful, cheap soap-style melodrama!

Now, if you think that’s all been a hideous mess, wait for the coda. It’s accompanied by a voiceover, a letter being read from David to Elena. He’s in Miami, spending his first Xmas apart from her in six years. She’s still at the original nursery, only she’s heavily pregnant, her contractions have started, Victor, all calm and collected, helps her into a taxi to head off to the hospital, oh for heaven’s sake, it’s a ‘full circle’ ending, echoing his birth at the start of the film, only this timre it’s going to be different because, unlike tewnty-six years sgo, peple in Spain are no longer frightened.

That’s it, that’s Almodovar’s last line, some moronic and wholly irrelevant political message slipped in for no better reason than to lend a spurious air of significance to a crappy film that deliberately throws in a who-the-fuck-knows-what’s-happening ending of guess for yourself. Well, I refuse to. Not only do I not care the least about whose baby it’s supposed to be but I simply refuse to play the game on principle. If you don’t know how to end your own film, Senor Almodovar, don’t ask me to do it for you. If this wasn’t part of a box-set, this DVD would be on eBay within half an hour.