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


Point Blank

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

All the Fells: Esk Pike


Esk Pike – The Southern Fells 2,903′ (210)

Date: 16 September 1994

From: Bowfell

Esk Pike was the last part of a long and glorious day, a sunny day set aside for the Big Walk at the end of a week’s holiday. Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and Esk Pike, starting from Oxendale and finishing by Esk Hause, Rossett Gill and Mickleden. And without a watch, which I’d left behind in Manchester, two nights before, breaking my holiday to head home to watch United playing in the Champions League, monitoring the time via Radio 4 on my Test Match Special cap radio. It had already been a long day by the time I descended to Ore Gap, and I was aware that I was getting tired and that every step from hereon would take me further away from my car and make the return journey all the longer, but I was damned if I was giving up here and going to drop down to the Angle Tarn path. The way forward was an uphill climb, following a path in a groove between higher bluffs on each side. It didn’t go to the summit, for that I had to make a 50′ diversion to the right, and by then I was glad I’d done for the day. But my refusal to retreat over trodden ground meant a descent onwards, towards Esk Hause, the path twice following remarkably flat rock ledges, until I was back at the Head of Upper Eskdale, where I’d stood about two months previously, coming down off Scafell Pike on an even better day from Seathwaite. I completed my walk by going to the cairn, by walking down to the wallshelter and, after a look westward towards the splendid skyline of the two Gables, turning down to the right and beginning the long walk to Angle Tarn. Three downhill stints and two flat sections between and I was crossing the outflow of the Tarn. This left the cruellest part of the day, three hundred feet of late, leg- and thigh-weary ascending to reach the top of the Pass. It was all downhill from here, thankfully. That day, the uppermost fifty feet or more of Rossett Gill was still steep, straight and torn to pieces, but I kept my eyes peeled and spotted the junction with the top of the re-made zig-zags and turned aside thankfully. Then I had a choice. I could follow the remade path down to the head of Mickleden, the easy, untroubled way, or I could finish in style by tracing the old pony route. They tell me that all traces of this have now disappeared and there weren’t that many left back then. There were none at the head of the route: I had to maintain the same angle of descent as the uppermost zigzag but over trackless fellside. I feel justified in boasting that I did it perfectly, arriving spot on for the miniature natural weir, then downhill using Wainwright’s page as a completely accurate guide, until everything petered out among the damp moraines. I made the driest beeline possible for the Mickleden path, then a nasty brown strip, landrover wheelbase wide, and even then I ended up with one boot plunged to the ankle and a rhythmic step-squelch all the way back to my car.

Sunday Watch: The Singing Detective: episode 02 – Heat


Episode 2 begins to place a structure upon this story, letting us see it as something composed of two levels and three corners. The levels are, of course, the past and the present, and the corners are two pasts and the present, two pasts, one fictional and one that, in the absence of any indications to the contrary, but without any actual confirmation, we assume to be real.

We also see a massive influx of new and major players: Bill Patterson as the psychiatrist Dr Gibbon, Jim Carter as young Philip’s Dad, Alison Steadman as his Mum and Janet Suzman as Marlow’s estranged wife, Nicola.

We’ve seen two corners already, in the first episode, Marlow’s present as a hospital patient with a severe and incapacitating skin condition, and the unreal past of a detective story he once wrote, now replaying in his head in a fantastic manner that we intuitively understand is not how it came out on the previously printed page. This progresses through Mark Binney’s unpleasant and sick encounter with the Russian ‘hostess’ Sonia, with whom he has sex: Binney’s contempt for Sonia is less for her selling sex than for having sex in the first place. His entire manner, even before we see that he has sex with his shirt and vest on and his shorts only pulled down as fas as his knees, so he can quickly cover himself up afterwards, whilst she is naked but for stockings and her black bra pulled down to her waist, is nothing but disgust.

The two trench-coated men are watching his house. Sonia panics and flees, only to disappear. The police suspect Binney, who protests his innocence to Philip Marlow, The Singing Detective. Gambon plays the fictional Marlow, all cleaned up and sharp-talking, a fond play on Chandleresque quips and stylistically constructed sentences. Detective Marlow must find Sonia but, just as we realised in the first episode, she is the naked body fished out of the Thames. And the trench-coated men effectively force their way into Binney’s house at the end, pausing only to comment upon a painting of Sonia, bare-breasted, showin that they, too, have a twisted attitude to sex.

Make no mistake, no part of this series is ultimately free from a problematic attitude, no, a loathing and disgust for sex as sticky, unpleasant, lubricious, farcical, life creation in a messy squirt. It’s there in too much of Dennis Potter’s writing, it comes from his own responses, but The Singing Detective is where he treats it to the most rigourous examination.

We see that start with Marlow being wheeled – the wheelchair squeaks, naturally – to his first meeting with Dr Gibbon, whose first step is to leave Marlow alone, able to see a copy, bent and twisted, of The Singing Detective, Marlow’s original paperback. Marlow is rude, dismissive, sarcastic and offensive, we already know that. It’s never been more obvious a defence mechanism, deflection, roadblack, the lot. Gibbon can easily see it as such, but he easily gets under Marlow’s skin, despite the patient’s urgent desire to avoid being exposed in any way, by reading to him a passage from the book, a passage about sex.

It’s a bullseye. Without having the book to check, I’m convinced Potter stole the passage off himself, his first novel, Hide and Seek, but it’s the same passage of disgust, even hatred. And fear.

It opens up the third corner, the real(?) past. The young boy at the top of the tree in the Forest of Dean (where Potter was born and raised) is Philip aged 10, and we open up to see his childhood. The cramped little miner’s cottage that Mr  Marlow and his wife share with his parents, with no room and no comfort. Marlow is, and his Dad was until coal dust in the lungs crippled him, a miner, but his beautiful wife is a cut above him, not of the Forest with its accent and sometimes impenetrable dialect. She’s highly-strung for one thing, though then again in those conditions who wouldn’t be?

But Marlow’s a beautiful singer (mimed of course) to his wife’s piano accompaniment, singing at the pub to wild applause, whilst she plays a complex piano piece to respectful silence. The compere, Raymond, is Patrick Mallahide again, a second mixing of the separated elements.

All of this is released in the skin-diseased Marlow’s head, his defences punctured, the flood of memory overwhelming as he develops a high fever. Coming late to the dining room argument and taking the blame onto his own head because it was he who was late. Showing off in class, supplying all the answers, teacher’s admiration and his classmate’s revenge on him (flaming hell, that went close to home, because I did that once: once only), delusions about the future at the top of the tree. And discovering his Mum lying in the gass of the forest, her dress up to her waist as a man lies on top of her, his bare bum bouncing. We don’t see who he is this time, but we don’t need to. We know who it’s going to be.

Marlow’s in a fever. The new patient, replacing Ali, is an obstreperous old bugger. But then he has a visitor, Nicola. We don’t exactly know her status but again we know who she must be. Marlow’s asleep, for which she is grateful. She’s horrified by his appearance, horrified but not disgusted, a point that’s not belaboured. She won’t stay, doesn’t want him woken, he’d only abuse her, and yes he does when he wakes, as she’s leaving the ward. Bitch. Whore. Slag. Who’s she spreading her legs for now?

Yes, you take the point. It will be developed further in succeeding episodes.

Not just a ‘Prisoner’ Prequel


In 1960, a television executive at ATV by the name of Ralph Smart proposed a new thriller series for the still very new ITV channel. The name of the series was Danger Man, and it was to star Irish-American actor Patrick MacGoohan, already highly-regarded as a stage actor of some intensity, as Special Agent John Drake, in what would be a series of 37 twenty-five minute black-and-white episodes, intending to fit half hour slots on the commercial network.

As the introduction explained, each week, Drake was a secret service operative. All countries around the world have organisations that deal with complex, frequently sensitive and secret cases, such as the CIA, or France’s Deuxieme Bureau. Drake is one agent, but his employers are NATO, and his brief is world wide.

Drake’s brief might have been world-wide but the filming wasn’t. As early as episode 2, a scene supposedly in Eastern Europe, Romania or Bulgaria I think, was instantly recognisable to me as being filmed on the rougher road on the western shore of Thirlmere, opposite to Helvellyn in the Lake District, whilst a China-set episode in the first dozen broadcast was filmed in a Welsh folly village that, several years later, would become much more well known.

Danger Man was a success, but there was no second series, then or not until much later. Though it had been popular in America, where ATV’s Lew Grade ultimately directed all his efforts, American financing for a second series could not be found and the show lapsed.

Until 1964, that is. Danger Man had been sold around the world. What’s more Ian Fleming’s James Bond had become a worldwide star in films, and there was a massive appeal for spy series. Fleming, incidentally had been approached to help define the series but had dropped out without contributing. Smart decided to rethink Danger Man completely.

All that was left of the original set-up was John Drake, Secret Agent. In its new form, Danger Man (still in black-and-white), was re-imagined as a 49 minute episode series, to fit an ITV hour long slot. Drake himself was now British, instead of Irish-American, as he had self-identified once in series 1, and worked for the British Secret Service. Edwin Astley, a popular composer of television theme and incidental music (and future father-in-law of Pete Townsend), was brought in to write a new theme, ‘High-Wire’, which immediately became one of the most thrilling and exciting themes of the Sixties, an era of great television themes that has never been equalled.

And the new Danger Man was a smash. MacGoohan quickly became the highest paid male actor on British TV. The show was a hit in America as well, where it was re-named Secret Agent (to limit the association with series 1 and give the show a new start) and Johnny Rivers recorded a US-only theme, ‘Secret Agent Man’. There were spin-off novels in the usual American fashion. I even read one once.

The new Danger Man ran until 1966, two full series. It was so big that Lew Grade upped the budget to enable the fourth series to be filmed in colour (for America: in Britain, colour was only achievable on BBC2, 625 lines, and not the standard 405 lines on which BBC1 and ITV operated). Former journalist George Markstein, a man with connections to the UK Intelligence Community, was appointed as Script Editor. Two episodes were filmed in colour, and then Patrick MacGoohan resigned.

What followed is now part of Television history, not to mention the subject of my first, series long, in-depth blog series. In February of this year, just before the lockdown struck, I bought a boxset of Danger Man series two and three, the complete run. I’ve been saving it for months, as the next thing up on Tuesday mornings, once I reach the end of Person of Interest. It’s time has come. We start next Tuesday. Listen to this.

Batman: Three Jokers 2


Well, if Geoff Johns really knows what he’s doing with this story, he’s only got one more issue in which to prove it.There is a story in issue 2 that can be summarised by an account of what happens but which so far fails absolutely on the question of why? Or, rather, what’s the point of this story.

The point is that there are, and for a very long time has been, three separate people composing the entity known by the Joker. This time round, Johns does a clearer job of defining them as the Criminal, the Clown and the Comedian. The Criminal is the original: it hurts, literally, when he laughs, through permanent nerve damage, inferred to be from his chemical bath. The Clown fantasises he has a family in suburbia, wife and son, terrified of him: he’s the one who beat Jason Todd to death when the latter was Robin. The Comedian is the one Jason has shot through the head at point-blank range, cold-bloodedly, in front of Batgirl.

Ok, that’s the what. The Jokers are trying to create more of them. They want Jason as the new Number 3: after all, he’s already calling himself the Red Hood, he suffered brain damage, has permanent nerve pain, emotional and physical trauma only relieved by inflicting pain himself. This is a hero? But Jason, for all that he hates Batman for not coming after him, for just replacing him, is not Joker material.

But this story is a story of two threes. The Three Jokers are set up against Batman, Red Hood and Batgirl. She’s the other major Joker victim, shot and paraplegic for several decades in The Killing Joke (Johns really does like to rag on anything Alan Moore wrote). But she’s just watched Jason Todd murder someone in cold blood before her eyes. He’s not just crossed the line, he’s obliterated it, he’s become the very antithesis of what the Batman Family represents. He has to be stopped, he has to be stopped just as much as the Joker or any of their other more conventional enemies.

But Batman won’t do it. That’s a mystery in itself: why does Batman basically not give a shit? Can’t arrest and charge Jason for murder, he’d have to unmask. Batgirl can’t be a witness: have to unmask. He’ll talk to Jason. Well, why the hell didn’t he talk to him a long time ago, when it might have done some bloody good, because make no mistake, this is way past the point from which Jason might have been diverted.

And when the two of them rescue him, further beaten and bloodied, it’s Batgirl not Batman who stays behind to tend to Jason, whilst Batman pisses off back to the Batcave to start re-reading files about Missing Criminls and Missing Clowns. Yes, Batman has files by those name all ready and waiting to be combed for identities he’s never been arsed enough to consider before. Is Johns aware of the image he’s creating for Batman here and that this is a tactic worthy of being used on the old TV Show, yes, that one? Holy Pathetic.

I’ve tried to steer clear of spoilers for things like this but couldn’t avoid being alterted to a leaked panel of Barbara (in costume but for her cowl) and Jason (in nothing but a towel and some elastoplasts) having a kiss. The context makes the whole thing less sensational: Jason is being more reasonable and self-aware than ever before, she’s being empathetic, it was a moment, nothing more, though it may prove to be the opening and closing of a door through which Jason Todd will not now pass, leaving his trajectory undisturbed.

Anyway, Johns hasn’t forgotten to administer a deep-seated pain to the main man. Joe Chill, yes, remember him, has cancer and weeks to live. His fingerprints are on a blunt instrument used to kill a man. Now The Joker – Joker One – has kidnapped him to Alaska to film him explaining why he really killed Thomas and Martha Wayne. Continued Next Month.

I cannot help but think that this is an inordinate amount of fuss over something of no interest or point. Another wrinkle to Bruce Wayne’s origin. Three Jokers: Why? What does any of it do to enhance the mythos? What part of it is a story with depth, intelligence and flair? What part of it connects with our emotions? Is this anything but a prime, twenty-one carat example of why comics are now in their decadent era, their dying flow? Concerned only with minutiae, drenched in death, pain, poision and torture. Completely unmoored from any sense of enjoyment, any idea that there was once a sense of fun, of awe and wonder about the possibility of these extraordinary, astounding and sometimes goofy powers. There is no fun.

Of course I’m dissing Geoff Johns in the main, but good, indeed excellent as Jason Fabok’s art may be, it’s taken so long to draw this, building everything about the Watchmen grid again, that all flavour has gone out of his work. It’s been over-processed until it’s sterile, until anything born of simple inspiration has been ground into the earth.

And once again, what is the point of Three Jokers? What does it gain us? How does it enrich the character? Is it even interesting? It smacks of Johns throwing in an offhand reference that sounded enigmatic and intriguing, but failing to actually come up with a reason that worked.

Come back in a month when I’ll report if Johns has anything up his sleeve to refute my opinion, or get me to applaud him. I’m not holding out any anticipation.

A fact about the Duckbill Platypus


According to our computer system at work, the duckbill platypus can store as many as six hundred worms in the pouches of its cheeks. Immediately, I envisaged the experiment to determine this taking place in an expensive restaurant with the platypus sat up at the table, a napkin around its neck, whilst being fed worms one by one whilst an assistant stands by with a clipboard, anxiously counting, until, in a Mr Creosote monent, he’s offered a wafer thin mint…

The Infinite Jukebox: Pete Atkin’s ‘Canoe’


There are few enough songs by Pete Atkin and Clive James that are known outside the charmed circle of we privileged fans as it is, and sometimes it feels that the later ones, the Twenty-First Century additions to that rich but obscure canon are known even less well. At least the likes of ‘The Master of the Revels’, or ‘The Flowers and the Wine’, or ‘Thirty-Year Man’, or ‘The Faded Mansion on the Hill’ have the advantage of history, the resonance of time.
‘Canoe’ comes somewhere between the old and the new. It was written in the Seventies, in that time when Atkin and James were so prolific that the songs outran the albums on which they could be recorded. Listening to it, you wonder how on earth it could have been ignored then, but the same thing happened to ‘History and Geography’, and other classics known only to those lucky few who got to gigs, before the contract with RCA was used up by the jokey Live Libel at the same time that the music business exploded, destroying the expectation of a seventh album.
The song finally saw daylight twenty years later, in the unexpected second act made possible by an Internet to connect the dots between the memories of the fans from then, and the later arrivals who found something that made complete sense to them.
A new wave of interest. An interest on Atkin’s part in dealing with that backlog. Sessions in his local studio, laying down demos, until he realised that these were not demos after all, but the basis of a seventh album, aye, and an eighth simultaneously. The ground being cleared before the reinvigorated urge to write anew.
‘Canoe’ is a dazzlingly simple song, played on on electric piano with minimal percussion: rich, calm notes and Atkin’s voice, clear in its Englishness. The melody is delicate yet rounded, framing a story that, once you begin to understand it, is immense in its implications. The song was inspired by the Apollo 13 mission, the one that went wrong, the one where the world held its breath over the days it took before the Bird could be negotiated back to Earth, its crew alive and well.
Clive James built the song upon the recognition that so modern a story was nevertheless one of the oldest stories of all. What, in essence, was the difference between Apollo 13’s venture into that terrifying, empty, trackless place, and the journeys of the canoes of Pacific islanders, guided only by the skies as they sought routes across the pathless water to their trading islands?
It’s the gift of this simplicity, and James’ refusal to wrap his story in the ornate language he was proud of, that introduces us to the three in the canoe, the lucky three who, under a perfect moon, on easy seas, slide across the reef in search of the island where they trade the shells their island holds for feathers.
But they are not the lucky three. They don’t find the island, they never return, they row under the sun’s reflected glare.
And imperceptibly the song crosses vast gulfs and times, as the singer tells his friends the time has come for all of them to die. But now the singer is one of Lovell, Swigert and Haise, checking navigation readouts and warning they are out a whole degree.
The same fate awaits them, death by frying. But the astronauts are the lucky three, flying the mission with their hands, and on a path for home. The astronauts returned, where their earlier counterparts were lost, drifting down in silence to the ocean the missions shared.
Clive James found the words to bring these two far-separated things together, and Pete Atkin the melody to bind them in your thoughts as the piano plays out. They produced a song that, like so many of their other creations, yet for far bigger reasons, ought to be far better known than it is. No other writer, I believe, of either words or music, could have told that story without the elaboration to dull it, in a way that would make us feel less for the ones who went out there for all of us, for the ones who returned with gifts and giving, and the ones who remained in their unknowingness.
And though this aspect of the Apollo 13 is little known, no other humans have travelled further away from our planet than Lovell, Swigert and Haise. They are the ones who truly went where no man has been before. ‘Canoe’ is a worthy token of their safe return from that distance.

Film 2019: Ill-Met by Moonlight


Ill-Met by Moonlight was the last film made together by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger as The Archers. Like its predecessor, it’s a war story, a true story, treated with faithfulness and respect, emotionally underplayed. It’s about a daring 1944 mission to capture the German Commander-in-Chief on Crete, General Kreipe, and bring him back captive to Cairo. The film was a success, the seventh most popular picture in Britain that year.

Unless it was something I sat and watched one of those Sunday afternoons a very long time ago, this is only the second time I have seen this film. For a long time, I didn’t bother with it: the Powell/Pressburger boxset is a big one, as you will by now realise, and as long as I had the major films I wanted, I didn’t necessarily have to see the minor ones.

I’m afraid that, to me, Ill-Met by Moonlight is a minor film. The Fifties was not a good time for the Archers, the years of their creative flair sadly diminished, and given the riches they showed themselves capable of in the preceding decade, it’s disappointing to see their partnership end on a pair of true-life stories in which they are required to do no more than follow the facts.

The film stars Dirk Bogarde as Major Patrick Leigh Fermor, nicknamed Paddy but most often referred to as Philidem, his Cretan name, Marius Goring in his fourth and final Archers film as Kreipe and David Oxley as Captain W Stanley Moss, known as Bill, on whose wartime diaries the book of the same name was based.

Ironically, though much of the film was shot on location, and in glorious mountain countryside of powerful beauty, and in deep, twisty ravines along roads that barely squeeze into the valley bottom, not one moment of the film takes place on Crete. Instead, shooting was in France and Italy. No matter, except for authenticity, for the mountains are magnificent and the urge to ascend them compelling. Of course, I’d have much preferred to see them in colour instead of black and white, though the lushness of colour might have overwhelmed so much, it could have squeezed the story out of consideration.

As it is, the story never rises above the level of a competent war story, made at a time when the War was still the central experience of every audience member’s life. It’s entirely respectful, as it might when using the names of real war heroes, who were still there to see their experiences recorded on screen (Leigh Fermor was present for the mountain location shooting and, according to Wikipedia, “expressed great satisfaction with Bogarde’s representation of him.”)

As well he might. By all accounts, Leigh Fermor was exactly what Bogarde portrays, handsome, intelligent, self-confident, a perfect romantic hero who combined the reticence of the English gentleman with the lust for life of the Hellenic spirit. The type is summarised immaculately in an early exchange in the film: Paddy and his Cretan Intelligence Chief, Micky, are sat in a cafe overlooking the General’s villa and plotting his abduction. Micky points out that the Villa is heavily defended, with ‘barbed wire, many dogs, many sentries’, to which Paddy replies, ‘Cut the wire, dope the dogs, kill the sentries’, calm and casual.

The actual plot involved abducting the General and his car, driving it through all the checkpoints and taking to the mountains to eventually rendezvous with a naval vessel at an undefended south coast beach. The plan works, but between the stiff upper lip conversation between Paddy and Bill, the officer and a gentleman conversation between Paddy and the General, and the two officers’ self-image as Amateurs, evoking the atmosphere of Buchan’s Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and their crowd, or Dornford Yates’ Richard Chandos, Jonah Mansell and Co., clubland heroes, the film forfeits any attempt at emotional depth and instead feeds only an idealisation of Britain’s victory as an expression of a superior national character. Frankly, I’d like more.

So far as the action is concerned, the film does the best with what it has, lacking the money or the facilities or maybe the energy to go for the spectacular. The only really expansive moment of violence comes when a German company, drawn out of the position that could destroy the whole mission, are slaughtered by Cretan Resistance fighters, and this takes place unseen, at the bottom of a deep gorge, represented only by the echoing of rifle and machine gun fire.

Not, for me, a fitting send-off for The Archers, lacking even the overaching sense of impending tragedy that permeates the final third of Battle of the River Plate. Powell and Pressburger, who rattled Churchill’s cage so thoroughly with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp‘s stuffy Englishmen and good Germans, ending their partnership with a straight, rah-rah War film. Life never lacks for ironies.