Dracula: Prince of Darkness

  • Spoiler AlertMy blogs are mainly suited to those who are already familiar with the films being reviewed. Tread carefully!

Director: Terence Fisher

Produced by: Anthony Nelson Keys

Written by: Jimmy Sangster

Starring: Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, Thorley Walters

Year: 1966

There’ll be no morning for us

Wonderful idea by the Hammer folk to open this one by giving us a delicious prologue, a recap of the climax to their earlier Dracula (with the even more provocative title Horror of Dracula, if you’re in the States). Captured within a misty halo, it throws us into the action straight away, whilst also providing us with a brief glimpse of Peter Cushing’s wonderful Van Helsing in his best ever scene. As a child, I still remember the huge impact of these few minutes, as two men (I still had no idea who they were) run up stairs and along corridors in a wonderfully scary-looking castle. The scene features a nice bit of candlestick-throwing and a lot of attempted strangulation, and it is a truly splendid old riot of a scene, culminating in Van Helsing’s leap for the drapes.

The Scary Priest

Sadly, there’s no more Cushing beyond this opener; he was off playng Doctor Who at the time. Instead, we are treated to the stentorian Andrew Keir as pragmatic Father Sandor (nope, nothing to do with Game of Thrones!), who is wholly unimpressed by the superstitions of the huddled villagers. We’ve shifted forward ten years, and he’s certain there are no more vampires around to eat the citizens of Carlsbad. There will be soon, though!

Happy to chug the odd drop of claret, and comfortable in the belief that the Almighty doesn’t mind him keeping his posterior well-warmed, Sandor is pretty rough on the long-suffering locals, calling them barbarians and blasphemers as he tears down their little clumps of protective garlic.

Four English Wanderers

En route to Carlsbad are four peripatetic English types. They’ve left the comforts of London in order to broaden their minds (and their veins, as it turns out) with a trip abroad. Clearly not Brexiteers, they have chosen some far-flung parts of Europe for their adventures, and wind up as guests in the vampire’s castle. Soon, two of them, married couple Alan and Helen (Charles Tingwell and Barbara Shelley), have been violently dispatched, and the others, Alan’s brother Charles and Charles’s wife Diana (Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer), are in a gig, fleeing for their lives and their immortal souls. An alliance between themselves and Sandor results in a super confrontation with Dracula on the icy mote of his castle.

Christopher Lee

In the role of the vampire, Christopher Lee returns for the first time in eight years. The original was in 1958, and this is 1966. In the earlier film, he is introduced almost immediately, his suave, gracious figure sweeping down the stairway to greet Jonathon Harker. In that film, he speaks some lines of dialogue throughout the earlier Harker scenes, before reverting to the silent, snarling creature that he will play for the remainder. He continues in this silent “vein” throughout Prince of Darkness. This time – aside from the prologue – we initially see him seconds before he claims his first victim, his face bathed in a sick bluey-grey light.

The Help

Dracula receives creepy support from Philip Latham as Klove (not at all hammy), his mortal manservant, left on his own to tend the castle. Later, we meet another of the vampire’s acolytes, this one played somewhat more lightheartedly by Thorley Walters. Ludwig, with his appetite for flies and his treachery towards the monks who’ve been providing him with his digs, is clearly another version of Bram Stoker’s Renfield.

Stop Talking!!

My biggest quibble with Prince of Darkness is that the dialogue is somewhat uninspired and repetitive. There are multiple references to the little shack where the travellers look destined to spend the night until the Count’s riderless carriage shanghais them into staying at the castle. And Helen’s frightened quibbling, although ultimately well justified, becomes quite grating quite quickly. In fact she turns out to be a lot more engaging as a vampiress, whether attempting to seduce her sister-in-law, or squirming and snarling like a rabid swan. Her relationship with Dracula is great fun to watch, as they jealously compete with each other over dibs on angelic, but feisty, Diana.

The Best Scenes

Thankfully, the dialogue problem is of only limited consequence here, since the film’s real strength lies in its prolonged moments without any talking. The opening features a slow, solemn procession of villagers bringing a young female corpse to a funeral pyre in the woods. Later, once the four adventurers have gone to bed, the camera roams ominously along a corridor, then creeps chillingly up the length of Helen and Alan’s bed. And, of course, 39 minutes in, begins the absolute high point of the movie, which was also one of the high points of my own childhood. Alan leaves his terrified wife alone in the room in order – for some bizarre reason – to check out why Klove is dragging a heavy case around the halls in the middle of the night. There follows eight speechless minutes which includes the film’s most violent moment. It involves Alan suspended over a sarcophagus in which lie Dracula’s ashes. Seconds later, a horrifying swipe from Klove’s dagger causes a cascade of blood to reanimate the Count, whose taloned hand can be seen gripping the edge of the tomb. Aside from the eeriness of the Count’s reanimation among the blood-soaked ashes, we also have an impressive fog of dust almost filling the entire screen. Meanwhile, to heighten the moment, the soundtrack provides us with a delectable crescendo.

A Watery End

Aside from this masterful scene, the film’s climax provides the other great moment. We’ve already seen the Count disintegrate in sunlight, with Cushing’s improvised cross thrust in his face. Now, we get to see a markedly different demise. For the only time that I’m aware of, Dracula is destroyed by water, as the frozen mote around the castle is broken into a number of floes by Father Sandor’s seemingly endless supply of rifle shots. There’s a moment, just towards the end, when we witness Dracula trying to balance on a circular floe, just before being tipped over into the water, his face visible below the ice as the end credits roll.

Finally, I’ll say that, as an Irishman, it always gives me a thrill to acknowledge that all this was made possible by the initial imagination of Dubliner Bram Stoker. Maith an fear, Bram!

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Forbidden Planet

  • Spoiler AlertMy blogs are mainly suited to those who are already familiar with the films being reviewed. Tread carefully!

Director: Fred McLeod Wilcox

Produced by: Nicholas Nayfack

Written by: Irving Block & Allan Adler

Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Earl Holliman, Richard Anderson…… and Robby The Robot (Yaay!)

Year: 1956

O brave new world / That has such people in’t!

-William Shakespeare, “The Tempest”, Act V Scene I, 183-184

Where are we?

Initially, we are aboard the the C-57D, a starship travelling to the galaxy of the great sequence star Altair. We are on our way to provide relief to the crew of the Bellerophon, a ship last heard from 20 years earlier.

Once there, we spend the rest of the movie on the planet Altair IV, either at the landing site, or in the domicile of the immaculately dressed Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), looking and sounding every inch the sophisticated elder scientist.

The crew is captained by Commander JJ Adams, played by Leslie Nielsen. Thankfully, the man who would eventually become Frank Drebin gets us to the planet safely, without destroying everything in sight (although he will later have his IQ called into question.)

The other principal crew members are Lieutenant Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly), Doctor Ostrow (Warrren Stevens), and Chief Engineer Quinn (Richard Anderson). Seventeen years later, Anderson would go on to play Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man.

There’s also a comic turn from Earl Holliman as the boozy ship’s cook.

On the planet, aside from Morbius himself, we also meet his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), and a marvellous robot called Robby. And something else!

Why Forbidden Planet is great SF

Fist, let me ask the question, Why do we love science fiction in the first [lace?

There are many reasons , but two are worth focusing on here

The first is that SF film makers can transport us from the little patch where we are now, and bring us to a variety of otherwise impossible places.

The second is that our own experiences can be mirrored back to us, and even explained to us, through fantastical allegories.

1. Transportation to Impossible Places

This factor is usually demonstrated through the use of extraordinary technologies, too mind-boggling to be contemplated in reality. In Forbidden Planet, Morbius spends a long time explaining the history of the Krell, an ancient race of vastly intelligent beings, and almost everything he says about them involves enormous statistics, the kind that only exist in science fiction.

The Krell inhabited Altair IV until some unknown event wiped out the entire civilisation in one night. Morbius explains that this happened 2000 centuries earlier, around the time that homo sapiens were making their very earliest appearance in Africa. He even plays us a piece of music composed by the Krell all of half a million years ago. Remarkable facts to begin with! But, wait, there’s more!

What appears to be the planet’s engine room is housed in a cube which is 8,000 cubic miles in volume. At one stage, we find ourselves inside a ventilator shaft which is nothing short of humongous. It has 7,800 levels, and there are 400 of them in all. Not only that, but the power source for the planet contains the same energy as 9,200 thermo-nuclear reactors. My favourite bit of wacky science comes when Morbius shows us some gauges along a wall. They indicate that the power source is calibrated in such a way that each gauge provides ten times as many amperes of energy as the one before. That’s ten times ten times ten times times ten, all the way up to infinity. A lot of numbers, and a lot of power.

Morbius knows all this because, happily, he’s a philologist, an expert in written languages, so he’s figured out most of what the Krell were all about. However, even this academic qualification is amplified by more big numbers. He started off with a very impressive IQ if 183, but this figure was doubled through playing around with a machine he calls the Plastic Educator. Apparently designed for the Krell kids, this thing almost killed Morbius when he first tried it out. He then informs us that he’s visited the lab every day for 20 years, and still has probably only the most rudimentary knowledge of the Krell.

He even tells us that, with his newly-expanded intellect, building a rather impressive robot like Robby was “child’s play.” (More on the robot later).

2. Fantastical Allegories

The second reason why this film makes for great science fiction involves a very different area of science from those mentioned above – psychology.

Drama by its very nature is primarily concerned with analysing the human condition. Great drama lays our inner psychological workings out there in front of us, and we get to experience stories about our fears, our prejudices, our hopes, our pleasures, the things that make us happy, sad, angry, and of course, terrified. Horror, fantasy, and science fiction does this as well, but in a highly experimental way, and usually on a much bigger scale. And that brings us to the human id, so significant to the kernel of this film.

The id, in Freudian lingo, is the instinctual part of the subconscious. It is at the root of our desires and our drives. It seeks out pleasure, and avoids whatever takes that pleasure away. It’s what makes us sexual, and what makes us violent. If you want to know what’s responsible for all that jealousy, rage and spite you occasionally feel, you need to have a word with your id. Get your superego to do it for you.

Morbius has a number of concerns which are revealed throughout the film. Most are actively voiced. He doesn’t want to return to Earth; he doesn’t want others messing around with the Krell technology; he doesn’t appreciate the interference of Adams and his crew. On top of this, there is the more covert set of emotions stirred up by the sexual attentions being directed at his innocent, virginal daughter. Paternal concern and anxiety about a daughter’s sexuality has been the subject of countless novels, plays and films. In Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, Chance Wayne undergoes castration for his sexual transgression. Thankfully, however, we are in the wonderful realms of SF here, so we can enjoy a very different take on the phenomenon.

The Plastic Educator uses a subject’s brain waves to create holographic images which, if you’re smart enough, may be projected anywhere on the planet. At the film’s climax, we discover that Morbius has inadvertently created a monster from within his own id, and that this thing, unknown to its creator, has been attacking the ship and its crew. The final twist comes when Altaira professes her love for Adams, and the creature goes into overdrive, even melting a set of layered impregnable metal doors which, earlier, had not even been marked by the Captain’s blaster gun.

Worse than that, his desire to remain on the planet twenty years earlier may have resulted in the deaths of the entire crew of the Bellerophon. He describes the cause as a “planetary force; some dark, terrible incomprehensible force”, but we knows better.

It’s interesting to note that Morbius’s only visible companions on the planet are his daughter and their robot. Altaira is a biological creation of Morbius and his wife, and Robby is a mechanical device built by him alone. Add to this, however, the existence of this third invisible companion, and we have a creation purely of the mind added into the mixture. These three characters provide examples of the three means by which we can create other beings: we can procreate them, we can build them, and we can dream them. I suppose writers and other creative artists perform the third of these tasks every day. Anyway who has ever made any headway with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake may have spotted occasional references to this idea throughout it.

Sex and Romance

This being 1956, it should come as no surprise that there’s not much respect shown towards the only female character. After more than a year in space, the crew is understandably horny (the chef even wonders if there’s any chance the robot might be female! Go figure!) This means that they blithely choose to openly comment on Altaira’s sexy appearance right in front of her polite and patient father. His id must have been on fire.

The love rivalry involves the girl, the Captain and Lieutenant Farman. Near the beginning of the film, when the ship comes out of hyper-drive, it appears that Farman has parked it a little too close to the sun, so Adams has to create an eclipse to get away from the heat. During this moment, he gives his Lieutenant a tetchy little “Oh Jerry” as a sort of reprimand. Later, when Adams finds Jerry “teaching” Altaira about lip-on-lip stimulation, he dismisses him (before ordering her to put on a less alluring dress.) He later leaves Jerry to man the defenses while he goes off to visit the Morbiuses, much to Jerry’s obvious irritation. Altaira has already revealed that Adams has a spark in his eye which is absent from Jerry’s, and even three passionate embraces with Jerry doesn’t seem to have quite the romantic impact that a good scolding from the Captain has. When Jerry finally gets killed by the monster, it’s because he recklessly ran at the creature, whereas Adams has the sense to wait until he can figure out how to defeat it intelligently. As a result, he is the one who gets to swoop Altaira off into space at he end, as he literally blows her world apart.

The “Tonalities”

The film opens, not with a conventional soundtrack, but with a sort of whistling, vibrating, bubbling mixture of tones. The more I hear it, the more I love it. These “electronic tonalities” are provided by Bebe and Louis Barron, and their sound resonates right throughout the film. There is a haunting, otherworldly feeling listening to it. The Barrons were pioneers in electronic music, and they used to hang out in beatnik bars in Greenwich Village. I wish I had a time machine right now.

And, of course, there’s Robby

One of the most enduring members of the cast is a hunk of metal which would go on to be awarded ts very own IMDB page, and whose Filmography extends to over half a century. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1119475/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1

Robby, although a mechanical tool, has the basic elements of a personality in this film. At one point, he zaps a monkey that attempts to steal some fruit. When analysing the constituents of Kansas City bourbon for the cook, he tells him “Quiet, please!”, and then belches. Later, in a delightful moment, when Altaira tells him she needs a new dress, he says “Again?!” with what sounds like disbelief.

This wonderful character wold go on to become one of the stars of Lost In Space for three years, as well as appearing in This wonderful character would go on to appear in Lost In Space, The Twilight Zone, Columbo, Mork and Mindy, The Addams Family, Wonder Woman, The Monkees, and The Man From UNCLE.

One final word: Forbidden Planet is based on, of all things, The Tempest, one of William Shakespeare’s oddest and most brilliant plays. I was going to do a full section on the cross-over plot points her, but how about I leave that for a separate post sometime in future?

Bon voyage!

The Little Foxes

  • Spoiler AlertMy blogs are mainly suited to those who are already familiar with the films being reviewed. Tread carefully!

Director: William Wyler

Produced by: Samuel Goldwyn

Written by: Lillian Hellman (from her own play, first performed on stage two years earlier)

Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright

Year: 1941

Forgive Miss Giddens, Julia. It’s not entirely her fault. She comes from a bad-mannered family

The cast

As the opening credits appear on screen, an early impression of this film is how strong the cast is. Many of the names might seem immediately unfamiliar, like Patricia Collinge, Dan Duryea or Charles Dingle, but we soon realise from watching the movie just how well we remember them from other classics. The three names at the top of the screen are the ones we know best. Herbert Marshall and Teresa Wright I got to know as a child from their works with Alfred Hitchcock.

Bette and Regina

And, of course, there’s Bette Davis. I’ve been a Bette fan for as long as I can remember and, although I am aware of how well she fitted into romantic roles like Now Voyager, and even sympathetic ones, like Dark Victory, she is best remembered for the times when she let her sheer wickedness out to play. Some of my more unforgettable early film experiences include being appalled by her one-eyed bitch in The Anniversary, or her two-eyed counterpart in thick white makeup in the one about the wheelchair and the dead rat (you know the one!).

And Regina Giddens is a fine example of another archetype, the respectable schemer. (She was originally played on stage by Tallulah Bankhead). Our first impression of her is slagging off her sister-in-law for playing piano early in the morning. She then makes fun of her brother for appearing in a window wearing his night clothes, as she casually fixes her hair. By this time, we see her as a prim Southern lady. But things are set to become darker.

It is to her credit that, although appearing in an ensemble film with a large cast, Bette is still the one who stands out. My earliest memory of this film is the bit where Regina’s husband, in some distress, is struggling up the stairs. The expression on her face is both haunting and terrifying.

The husband is question is Horace. He is played by Herbert Marshall, who has one of the most wonderfully resonant voices on screen.

The Mill and the Money

The plot involves the financial machinations of the Hubbards, a family of three in the old South in 1900. There’s a new cotton mill coming to the town, backed by a Chicago businessman. Regina and her two brothers, Ben (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) want to invest $75,000 each, in the hope of making millions back. As is to be expected in a drama of this sort, things are not straightforward. As soon as the dinner with the businessman is ended, the family get into a disagreement about what share each is to receive, with Regina – of course – grasping a 40% payoff because she knows that the others are intent on keeping the deal within the family. Runt of the litter Oscar has to accept the resultant drop in his own share.

The next problem comes about because Regina is married to a decent man. Horace is tired of the Hubbards “pounding the bones of the town to make dividends”. He has a serious heart condition, and is not expected to live long. Because the money is not forthcoming from Horace, another way needs to be found. Thankfully, Oscar’s son Leo (Duryea), who works in Horace’s bank, the Planters’ Trust, has a set of keys of which he really should be more respectful .

There are side stories going on as well. Regina’s daughter Alexandra (delightfully shortened to something like Zanny) is having a sort of coquettish friendship with liberal newspaperman David (Richard Carlson), even though he’s a few years older than her. Zanny (Teresa Wright) is treated throughout as if she’s some sort of young moron. She’s too young for David; she’s too young to go to Baltimore on her own; she’s too young for most things. And yet, she provides the real stinger at the end. Although Regina’s style of parenting amounts to a combination of constantly belittling Zanny and using her for her own nefarious ends, it turns out that Zanny is the only one who can really hurt her after all.

Traditional marriage

Traditional marriage doesn’t come out of this film at all well. At two points, a female character is asked why she married her husband; in each case, the reply is less than edifying. Closet alcoholic Birdie (the aforementioned sister-in-law, played by Patricia Collinge) replies that Oscar was kind to her once and used to smile at her, even though he really wanted her family’s cotton fields at Lyonette. In one shocking moment, her rude, vulgar husband even slaps Birdie hard across the face.

Even worse is Regina’s reply when asked the question by her own husband. At first she says that she was lonely. That seems fair enough, in its way. She then explains, however, what this loneliness actually means when you’re the only girl in the family, and your brothers have inherited all the moolah. She says she was lonely for the things she wanted and didn’t have, the things she believed a comfortably-off husband could get for her.

In the midst of all this, there is talk of Zanny being married off to her first cousin, the horrific Leo. Just like their business dealings, the Hubbards like to keep their marriages at close quarters.

Leo the Lost

Leo himself is something of a tragic villain in the piece. He spends most of his time being bullied by his father, or yawning incessantly at the bank. His access to his uncle’s Union Pacific bonds provides a major point of the plot. In one of the film’s most hilarious (although still quite pathetic) moments, Leo suggests gleefully that stealing the bonds might result in him becoming a partner in the mill, a remark that earns a cigar-shattering blow from his uncle Ben.

Towards the ending of the film, he is also the recipient of some of the best man-on-man slapping you’ll see in any film.

The man behind the camera

The cinematography is by Gregg Toland, immediately after shooting Citizen Kane. You may see many similarities between the way the two films look, especially in the depth and perspective Toland brings to group shots.

The Tea Scene and its aftermath

There is a scene, about 72 minutes into the film (just after the scene in the orchard) where the five most sympathetic characters are all gathered together for tea in the garden. We have Horace, Zanny, David, Birdie and servant Addie (Jessie Grayson). They initially reminisce about the old plantation at Lyonette, before turning to more serious subjects. I noticed what a relief it was – despite their wonderful wickedness – to spend a little time away from the Hubbards, and in the company of nice people. During this scene, the point is made that there are not only bad people in the world, doing bad things, but there are also those who stand back and watch them do it.

This conversation adds to Horace’s determination to do something to stop the Hubbards wrecking the town. Of course, his dreadful wife and in-laws are only part of the problem. He later acknowledges that people like them will ultimately be responsible for wrecking the whole country. Frighteningly enough, this echoes Ben’s earlier sentiment that people like himself and Regina will end up eventually running the country. A frightening thought! Good job it could never happen in reality!

Laura (1944)

  • Spoiler AlertAlthough I try not to give away important plot details in my blogs, if you haven’t seen the film below, be careful how you tread (even if you ARE an angel)

Director: Otto Preminger

Produced by: Otto Preminger

Written by: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein & Betty Reinhardt, from what must be a very entertaining story by Vera Caspary

Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson

Year: 1944

 

 “Murder is my favourite crime”

“I don’t use a pen; I write with a goose quill dipped in venom”

“You’d better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse

– All lines spoken by the wonderful Waldo.

The Set Up

The first words we hear are, “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died”, spoken in voiceover by society columnist Waldo Leydecker (Clifton Webb), “the most widely misquoted man in America”. We’re thrown a little off-kilter straight away, having just been informed that the woman whose name provides the film with its title is already dead. This playing around with the audience’s expectations is one of the delights of Laura, which is certainly one of the most waspishly intelligent of 1940s noir films. In fact, to refer to it as noir also compounds expectations. There are no smart-talking gangsters in this one, and very few wise-cracking detectives. McPherson (Dana Andrews), the cop investigating Laura’s murder, even gets to tell us at one stage that it was Sibelius, not Brahms and Beethoven, who had been performed in concert the previous Friday.

Auntie Ann

The dramatis personae of the film is made up of apparently elegant sophisticates who all seem to have their own ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. Laura’s aunt Ann, played by Judith Anderson, is trying to steal Laura’s fiancé, Carpenter (Vincent Price). She actually says that she’s not a nice person, and neither is he. She believes that the relationship will work because he’s no good, but she doesn’t care. They’re both weak, but she can afford to keep him. Perhaps people don’t say these things out loud in real life, but that doesn’t diminish the thrill of hearing them spoken in Anderson’s cold, austere voice. This was four years after chilling audiences in the role of Mrs. Danvers.

Gene Tierney is Laura

Laura is played by Gene Tierney, and her story is told in flashback by Waldo for the first half of the film. She is an excellent female character for the time the film was made, in 1944. She works in advertising, and seems to be both ambitious and successful (she has another of those amazing Hollywood apartments). When we first meet her, 15 minutes in, she is attempting to gain an endorsement from Waldo for a fountain pen. At this point, she is only seventeen years old, and has put together her own advert for the pen. Indeed, it was all her idea to approach Waldo in the first place. He is having lunch, and does not appreciate her interruption. He refers to the “rustic community” from which he assumes she hails, and even impugns her for using her femininity to get what she wants. Interestingly, despite this show of appalling rudeness, Waldo has no qualms about questioning Detective McPherson’s manners throughout the film, taking particular exception to his use of words like “dame” and “doll”.

Laura is strong, unflappable, and wilful. She tells the detective that she doesn’t do anything unless it is of her own free will. We find ourselves on her side from the first moment.

Waldo the WASP

During this lunchtime encounter, Waldo threatens to use his position as a columnist to punish the advertising agency for having interrupted his lunch (which he says is more important than Laura’s career. Boo! Hiss!). I was interested in the fact that Laura is one of the best-written films of the period, and yet we are given regular reminders throughout of how words can be put to very negative use by those skilled enough to wield them. Apart from what he writes, Waldo has the capacity to sting everyone in the room with his vituperative tongue.

Vincent

Price, who will make regular future appearances on this blog site, was about six years into his career at this stage, and had made about a dozen films. Apart from The Invisible Man Returns, he had made no real forays yet into the horror genre. He plays this as the tall, handsome cad – with his own genuine Missouri accent – who is both exceedingly charming, and utterly undependable. He says at one point that he can afford a blemish on his character, but not on his clothes, and seems to be involved with every woman in the film. He even jokingly asks an elderly cook to marry him. Waldo (hilariously) refers to him as “a male beauty in distress”, and it made me wonder if the 33-year-old Price may have thought that he would be playing beauties all his life. As it turned out, it was Carpenter’s darker side that would appeal to future film-makers. Glad of that!

The Detective alone with the painting

Speaking about relationships, there are certainly plenty to go around here. Apart from Carpenter’s many relationships, there is also the attraction that exists between Laura and the other two male leads. I’m saving Waldo for later, but there is also an unusual fascination which grows between McPherson and the dead girl. There is a portrait in Laura’s apartment which is occasionally commented upon by the other characters. For the most part, however, it is shown only in the background, as the camera glides through the room. It is at its most vivid, however, during my favourite scene of the film, which occurs almost at the midpoint (or heart) of the picture. On a rainy night, the Detective goes to Laura’s apartment alone. Apart from a visit from Waldo, and one telephone call to another officer, he remains alone for the evening. As the music swells around him, he wanders abjectly through the various rooms, fingering her love letters, smelling her scent, staring at her clothes, gradually getting drunker. In one beautiful shot, he falls asleep in a chair beside the painting. The camera zooms in on his face, then pulls back out again. It is a breath-taking shot, and sets us up nicely for what happens next, the film’s biggest shock (which is still presented with marvellous subtlety).

Dana Andrews is solid in the role, just the right mixture of blunt cop and sensitive soul. He plays with a small baseball toy throughout. He says it keeps him calm but, since the object of the game is balance, perhaps that is what he is mostly trying to achieve in his life. Falling in love with a dead girl is not the right way to go about that, Mac.

Clifton Webb     Huzzah!

And then there is Waldo, a man who clearly pronounces the first “o” in “recollection”. Despite it being totally non-sexual and without romance, his relationship with Laura is at the core of the film. This is a tale of obsession, which is shown most notably in a scene early on in which Waldo produces a cigarette case and a report from a private investigator in order to prove Carpenter’s infidelities. In a really chilling moment, as Laura begins to dial two telephone numbers, he demonstrates, in his quiet, debonair voice, that he knows the movements and the whereabouts of everybody associated with her. It is Waldo’s voice that we hear most often in the film, whether in person, or while relating the tale of his history with Laura, or on the radio, during the film’s climax. Clifton Webb would go on in later life to play The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker, and the even more remarkable Lynn Belvedere in Sitting Pretty and its two sequels, but this is my favourite of his roles. With his clipped, effete delivery, and almost British demeanour, he would find a natural home in the world of cinema comedy (and Noel Coward plays), but he adds such subtle menace to the role of Waldo, it is difficult not to see him as the star of the film.

Let’s Hear It For The Team

The film’s soundtrack is provided by “The Grandfather of Film Music”, David Raksin.

Although not credited, Ring Lardner, Jr. of the “Hollywood Ten” apparently had a hand in the script.

A final commendation to producer/director Otto Preminger and his team for bringing it all in at just 1 hour, 23 minutes. To achieve so much during such an economical frame is worthy of note.

 

 

Kind Hearts and Coronets

  • Spoiler AlertMy blogs are mainly suited to those who are already familiar with the films being reviewed. Tread carefully!

Director: Robert Hamer

Produced by: Michael Balcon & Michael Relph

Written by: Robert Hamer & John Dighton

Starring: Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinn..(ok! You get the gag)

Year: 1949

Kind hearts are more than coronets,

           And simple faith than Norman blood.”

ALFRED LORD TENNYSON – “Lady Clara Vere de Vere”

The opening titles which occupy the first two minutes of this film will lull you gently in. The screen is surrounded by delicate lace, and the music playing on the soundtrack is a tastefully orchestrated piece. The onscreen credits are in a slanted style, with tails emerging wistfully from each letter. Even the words “Ealing Studios”, which appear at the beginning and end of the sequence, suggest a warm, unthreatening Englishness. Of course, those familiar with Ealing Studios will be aware that they may be about to witness something a little darker than the more casual viewer will expect.

Hangman

And so it turns out. Kind Hearts and Coronets opens on the imposing metal door and cold stone walls of what is clearly a prison. The first character onscreen, played by Miles Malleson, is soon revealed to be a Hangman, looking forward with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety to his biggest job yet, the execution of the 10th Duke of Chalfont at 8am the following morning. The darkness of the comedy emerges very quickly, despite the subtlety with which it is delivered. The Hangman’s approach to the front gate is accompanied by threatening brass instruments, while the doorbell to the forbidding place has a gentle little tinkle. The characters address each other with the greatest of politeness, and allow none of the potentially negative emotions of the situation to intrude upon their interactions. The Hangman is certain that he will have to retire after killing the Duke because “after using the silken rope”, he’ll “never again be content with hemp.”

The Duke in question is Louis Mazzini, son of an Italian man and a woman from an aristocratic family, the D’Ascoynes. For marrying beneath her station, she has been disavowed, practically expelled, by the elders of the family. As a boy, young Louis begins his obsession with the idea of eventually inheriting the title. This obsession is accentuated by the premature death of his mother. It is typical of the style of comedy throughout that her death occurs in a street accident, caused by the fact that she has broken her glasses and is too poor to have them repaired. The poignancy of this is obvious, and yet there is still something so inane about it that we cannot help but giggle a little. By the time we are a quarter of the way in, Louis has acquired plenty of reason for revenge. He can’t even get the girl he wants because of the social position he has been denied.

It’s interesting to note, so many years after first seeing this film, that so much information is provided at the outset. We know straight off that Mazzini will inherit the Dukedom, even though he will spend the entire film attempting to acquire it. The real intrigue comes from the knowledge that he has been convicted of murder, yet we have to wait until quite late to learn the circumstances which led to that conviction.

Louis

In the principal role of Louis, the man whose narration appears frequently throughout the proceedings, Dennis Price is the epitome of callous reserve. His voice modulates beautifully throughout, even though he speaks largely in a matter-of-fact monotone. His entire delivery accentuates the focus and sense of purpose which drives the character. There is an effete aspect to him which masks his ruthlessness. Many people dislike voiceovers, but when the writing is this crisp, and the delivery this calculating, they can be heavenly.

Guinness (x8)

The most delightful, and indeed the most famous, aspect of the film is the decision to have Alec Guinness play all of Louis’s victims. Initially Guinness was offered the roles of four members of the D’Ascoyne family, but he suggested that they expand this to eight. It does mean that some members of the family receive more attention than others; the sea captain is allowed to bark out only one muddled order about port and starboard and other boat-related stuff before going down with the ship; the suffragette smashes some windows, gets arrested, goes up in a balloon, and falls to earth in Berkeley Square, all in the space of just 68 seconds. Others are allowed more fleshing-out, which provides some

wonderfully devilish comedy. Guinness doesn’t appear until 20 minutes into the film, and then only to be briefly glimpsed as the Duke himself, but his first two substantial roles are marvellous in their contrast. To begin with, there is the dreadful Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, the first of two characters to be drowned in the film. Next up is the sweet, likeable Henry, blown to bits in his photographic development hut. Louis carries a bottle of poison around for much of the film before finally getting the opportunity to use it on the fool of the family, the Reverend D’Ascoyne. My favourite moment in this scene comes when Louis, pretending to be a bishop, is encouraged to recite the Biblical story of Daniel in the Matibili language, which he has clearly never heard nor used.

“Englishness”

There is so much Englishness on display that it sometimes astounds me that those of us from outside the UK can even appreciate a fraction of what is going on. Nevertheless, there is a wryness in Kind Hearts which keeps you onside throughout. At one point, Louis says that he has taken his last week’s wages and “invested in suitable apparel for a weekend at Maidenhead”, while appearing onscreen in a ludicrous striped blazer and boater. I know this is funny, but can’t quite be sure why. Perhaps that is part of the charm. A little later, he tells us that he learned how to swim at Clapham Municipal Baths, which renders his unfortunate position in life clear to us all, even those of us who know little about such places.

Mama Mazzini

Many films rely heavily on a single female lead, who usually appear in a wasted role backing up the main man. For this reason, it is wonderful to see so much female talent on display in this one. Even before either of the two leading actresses have made their appearances, we have already spent some time in the company of Audrey Fildes, as Louis’s Mama. With limited screen time, she might have been perceived as merely the woman who brought our antihero into the world. However, because of the manner in which she has educated her son in the D’Ascoyne family tree, she is given an edge of bitterness and resentment. At one point, she even says that she wishes all the family would die.

Sibella

Joan Greenwood’s Sibella (the only time I have ever encountered this name) is the very personification of the villainess. Early in the film, Louis hands her a gift. She is about to open it when suddenly her beau, Lionel, honks his horn outside, and she throws it on the table, completely forgetting it. The five adjectives Louis uses to describe her are “vain, selfish, cruel, deceitful…..and adorable”. Their scenes together are electrifying, for a number of reasons. They seem able to read each other’s thoughts and emotions, whereas her husband and his fiancée don’t seem to know their partners at all. Their frequent liaisons at his bachelor flat are so sexually charged for the year 1949 that even a kiss can seem like the most adulterous act imaginable. There is also the fact that, having laughed at Louis’s initial proposal, Sibella becomes more attracted to him as his income rises, and the list of living D’Ascoynes grows shorter.

Edith D’Ascoyne

By contrast, the role of Louis’s fiancée is played by Valerie Hobson, who played The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 (yes, she did!). Her character, Edith, the widow of one of Louis’s victims, is the perfect embodiment of sweetness and morality. I found it hilarious that the utterly amoral Louis, upon first meeting her, describes her as a prig, but very soon determines that she should become his Duchess as quickly as possible. Indeed, at one point, Louis is seen berating the Duke for plunging his mother into poverty because she married for love, rather than wealth or position, even though this is precisely what Louis is planning on doing himself.

Coldly stylish, wickedly funny, and a genuine mystery to boot, this is one for the ages.

A Clockwork Orange

  • Spoiler AlertMy blogs are mainly suited to those who are already familiar with the films being reviewed. Tread carefully!

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Produced by: Stanley Kubrick

Written by: Stanley Kubrick (from the novel by Anthony Burgess)

Starring: Malcolm Mc Dowell

Year: 1971

 

Goodness comes from within. Goodness is chosen

This one should suit the literary, as well as the cinematic, among you, O my brothers and sisters.

“A Clockwork Orange”, the novel, was written by Anthony Burgess in just three weeks in 1962, in the southern English town of Hove, just beside Brighton. Burgess, whose wife had been attacked by a gang of American servicemen some years later, intended the book to be a quick knock-off, in contrast to the hefty and involved tomes which he preferred to write. As well as being a testament to his wife, it was also an ironic comment on the public reaction to what was perceived as the ever-increasing level of youth violence taking place in society. It was, however, to become his most famous work.

The teenager had only just emerged as a distinct demographic group over the previous few years. Older cinema audiences would have been aware of feeling some trepidation upon seeing Brando’s anarchic leather-jacketed persona in The Wild One. Also, Jimmy Dean had been involved in a knife fight in Rebel Without a Cause. These feelings of disquiet would also have been evident to Burgess from the ongoing conflict between Mods and Rockers in Brighton, (see Quadrophenia).

Ten years later, genius film-maker Stanley Kubrick took up the reins and turned this novel into one of his infrequent film projects. The film is remarkably true to the novel, with entire sections of dialogue reproduced verbatim. There are, however, a number of significant differences.

Image result for a clockwork orangeImage result for a clockwork orange

The story, in its simplest form, concerns four young thugs, led by Alex (Malcolm McDowell) somewhere and sometime in England, who make nightly excursions into town and country to commit acts of violence, including rape. Although they do gain financial reward for their efforts, they seem much more attracted by the thrill of their crimes.

Because Burgess knew that the 1960s slang used by teenagers would quickly date the novel (remember all those old films were guys say “square” and “Daddy-o”), he created a new language for Alex and the gang. As a life-long fan of James Joyce, this was probably easier than it sounds. Nevertheless, Kubrick chose to use this language in the film, adding to both the frustration and the joy of viewing it. Nadsat, the Russian suffix for “teen”, is described in book and film as a mix of old rhyming slang, gipsy talk and Slavic propaganda. Cockneys in England would be familiar with the word cutter for money, as in “bread-and-butter”, but a knowledge of Russian is helpful in defining words like rassoodock, meaning “mind”, slooshy, meaning “to hear, or to listen”, and britva, meaning “a knife or a razor”. There are also childish words thrown in. Alex eats eggiwegs, and people who are sad go boohoo. The language becomes clear quite quickly. It’s not hard to pick up what the red red krovvy is that flows from someone’s head once they’ve had a bit of a thrashing (or a tolchocking, if you prefer). Intriguingly, this word is pronounced kroovy in the film. My favourite word, though, is horrorshow, from the Russian word xorošó, meaning “good, excellent, well”. I love how the word means the opposite of what it seems to mean, but also that this noun is used throughout the film as an adjective, even as an adverb.

The language may provide one treat for the ears (or ookos, if you prefer), but this treat is accentuated by the music. At the core of the soundtrack is (“lovely, lovely Ludwig van”) Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but there is also room for two of Rossini’s overtures, William Tell and The Thieving Magpie. The former is an interesting choice. It has been synonymous since the 1950s with The Lone Ranger, yet here it is used for much less heroic reasons, as Alex cavorts round his bedroom at frantic speed with two young girls he meets in a record store. The latter piece of music is used, more appropriately, for the two house-breaking scenes. The Minister of the Interior (or Inferior) is introduced to the strains of “Land of Hope and Glory” by Elgar, and, finally, there is the March, which is based on Beethoven’s Ninth.

Alex’s friends are referred to as droogs; they are Pete, Georgie and Dim. In the novel, the “heighth of fashion” is tight leggings, waistcoats with no lapels and big shoulders, and off-white cravats. Kubrick elected to dress them in more working-class clothes – industrial trousers and grandfather shirts. The most intriguing item of clothing in the film is the selection of hats. Two of the droogs wear bowlers, while the other two wear a beret and a type of flat top hat. In both media, however, they wear heavy boots and codpieces.

The violence in the film is highly stylised, in keeping with the overall tone of the film. During an earlier set-to with Billyboy’s gang, we see characters flying balletically through the air, as booted feet smash flimsy tables into matchwood, and bottles (presumably made from sugar) smash easily on the faces of the fighting men. This contrasts with the subtler, and yet still more brutal, violence of the novel. Burgess doesn’t always share the details of the fighting, and yet this scene ends with Billyboy having both his cheeks slashed with a razor, while one of his droogs has been blinded by Dim’s chain. Kubrick’s lyrical style carries through into much of the rest of the film, creating a different type of humour to that of the book. In the film, the cat lady is felled by one blow from a large plastic penis; in the novel, the woman – who seems older – is subjected to a much more comprehensive beating and kicking from Alex, and is eventually killed by a heavy bust of Ludwig van. (This bust wears the same type of cravat that Alex wears).

This killing results in Alex, having been deserted and betrayed by his droogs, being sent to prison. Next we see his induction, a scene which doesn’t appear in the book. I mention this scene because, in it, he acquires a religion. He states that he is C of E (Church of England). I found this an interesting choice, since his creator, Burgess, was a practicing Catholic. Alex is also given a surname. In the novel, he once refers to himself as “Alex the large” during a sex scene; Kubrick elects to have him inform the guards that his name is Alexander DeLarge. Interestingly, Kubrick also shortens his prison number. The novel identifies him as 6655321; the film removes one of the 6es.

A Government Minister convinces Alex to undergo the Ludovico Treatment, a new style of conditioning involving the use of drugs and films to sicken the subject against all thoughts of violence and sex. It also results in him growing to detest even Beethoven’s Ninth (or, in the novel, all classical music). The most memorable part of this treatment is the use of eye clamps. That’s a real doctor administering the eye drops – just in case. As one would expect, McDowell did suffer some damage to his cornea, rendering him temporarily blind.

When Alex is released, he is unable to defend himself against any attackers, including the police. One of the most notable aspects of this is that, even though we have seen him as the victim of violence before, he still relied on his cockiness and swagger as a defence. Following the Ludovico Treatment, however, he is terrified by his own helplessness.

I had some fun trying to place the period in some context. The money that Alex stockpiles in his bedroom bears the head of Queen Elizabeth, and the music he plays is on a mini-cassette. Also, the wine which he drinks later, at the home of one of his victims, is dated 1960. Nevertheless, the furniture in that same room looks similar to that used in 2001: A Space Odyssey three years earlier.

The most significant change from book to film is in the circumstances leading to Alex’s eventual fate. To begin this, I’ll return to the film’s most notorious scene, the break-in at the house (the HOME, in fact) of Patrick Magee and Adrienne Corri. This scene occurs less than ten minutes after the fight with Billyboy’s gang. The strains of The Thieving Magpie, which had provided the soundtrack for that scene, re-emerge from the background just as the droogs are approaching the house. Once inside, Alex, intent on brutalising the man and gang-raping the woman, steps into a dance routine as he performs “Singin’ In The Rain” (much to the intense annoyance of Gene Kelly, who never forgave the misuse of his most iconic number). Again, the song-and-dance aspect of the scene is very much in keeping with the tone of the film, rather than the novel, but it does reappear at the film’s end for a very important reason. In Burgess’s novel, Alex is driven to attempt suicide by a group of political activists who wish to use Alex’s death in order to shame the Government. In the film, this same scene comes about because of the writer’s (Magee’s) intention to exact revenge for the earlier attack. This is prompted by him hearing Alex singing the song while in the bath. (Cue an opportunity for Magee to give another of his enormously extravagant performances). In other words, Magee’s character has been conditioned by Alex to fear this song in much the same way as Alex has been conditioned to detest the Ninth Symphony. I found this an interesting contrast with the novel, in which the writer has only the faintest (or dimmest) idea that he recognises his former attacker, but never quite puts his finger on it.

Alex, and the film, are a fascinating bundle of contradictions. His love of classical music suggests a noble and an artistic nature. He explains, however, that the music inflames him, and makes the violence more enjoyable. Later, the prison chaplain believes that he is interested in the Bible because he is seeking redemption. He is, however, turned on by the bloodiness of the book, especially the Old Testament. He even fantasises about whipping Jesus and hammering the nails into the Cross. The Government boasts of its crime-fighting policies, and yet allows young thugs into the police force, a Fascistic method of keeping the country safe. Also, once Magee recognises Alex, he effectively imprisons him in his home, not unlike the manner in which he himself was earlier rendered helpless by the droogs.

One of our final images of Alex is sitting in his hospital bed, repeatedly opening his mouth to receive the food the Minister feeds him. He resembles a little chick in the nest. Indeed, he looks as if he has been reborn, very much in the way that the Star Child from the end of 2001 represents Mankind being reborn. A Clockwork Orange, arriving three years later, gives us a much more cynical view of this rebirth.But then Alex goes off into one of his reveries, in which he is having sex with a naked woman. This act is not forced; both he and the woman appear to be celebrating. The people standing on either side are wearing their best clothes, and that may well be confetti in Alex’s hair. Perhaps Alex is dreaming about wedded bliss, as suggested in the final chapter of the novel. This may be a rebirth that Kubrick can live with for now, at least until the dawn of the new millennium 30 years later.

Because Kubrick chose to work exclusively in England for the latter part of his career, many of his actors are more recognisable to an audience on this side of the Atlantic:

  • Alex’s father is played by Philip Stone, who would also appear for Kubrick in Barry Lyndon and The Shining (as Grady). Alex refers to his parents as pee and em (pater and mater).
  • John Savident, appearing as an associate of Magee’s, would be familiar to fans of British soap opera as the iconic Fred Elliott in Coronation Street.
  • Godfrey Quigley is the prison chaplain (referred to as the “charlie”), who plays the role in a thick Northern Ireland accent, making him sound like one of the mad preachers in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The charlie puts forward the principal argument against the Ludovico Treatment, stating that “When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man”. The Minister, incidentally, counters that Alex will be “your true Christian, ready to turn the other cheek, ready to be crucified rather than crucify, sick to the very heart at the thought even of killing a fly”.
  • One of the police officers who beats up Alex is Steven Berkoff, with a grand head of dark hair.
  • Dave Prowse plays strongman Julian, six years before becoming the body (but not the voice) of Darth Vader. Prowse had to carry Magee AND a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. Because of the exertions of this act, he managed to convince perfectionist Kubrick to shoot the scene in just three takes, making it one of the fastest scenes in the director’s career.

If you’ve enjoyed this, then simply lay back and viddy a malenky bit of Blur:

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

  • Spoiler AlertMy blogs are mainly suited to those who are already familiar with the films being reviewed. Tread carefully!

Director: Robert Wise

Produced by: Julia Blaustein

Written by: Edmund H. North

Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe

Year: 1951

 

“I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason”

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Michael Rennie comes from another planet 250,000,000 miles away to warn us not to bring our petty squabbles into space. Whatever damage we may be willing to do each other down here, they don’t want to know about it up there. 65 years after this classic film touched down, I find I’m inclined to agree.

Because TDTESS was released so early in the era of American SF, it’s important to remind ourselves that all those “clichés” we may choose to scoff at were only just being established. Bernard Hermann’s opening title music features that high-pitched siren-song that we have since come to associate with flying saucers hovering around. 45 years later, Danny Elfman would use it liberally in the score of Mars Attacks!

 

The opening

The film kicks off quite quickly. Following the credits, we see a young lad in a radio tower become very excited that there’s something flying round the Earth at 4,000 miles per hour. “Holy mackerel”, he says. Cut to a room full of English fellows, with one of them saying “Holy Christmas!” for the same reason.  Cue rapid cutaways to a Calcutta radio broadcaster, a bunch of French people huddled around a radio, a BBC commentator, an American commentator, etc., as the excitement mounts. The flying object is on its way to Washington. Once it lands, we have Armed Services Police, jeeps and tanks all rushing to the area, the tanks skidding dramatically in the mud. Only broadcaster H.V. Kaltenborn chooses to pepper the “anxiety and concern” with words of “normalcy”, as he reassures us about the beautiful spring weather and the tourist crowds. A somewhat surreal moment there.

Despite this, there are still people shouting frantically into phones, demanding to speak to the President, and – yes, there it is! – a printing press rushing the news out on spinning rollers. Nevertheless, we are given some reassurance by Drew Pearson, a newsreader who wears his hat even when he’s on television.

Klaatu and his companion

We get our first close-up of the spaceship seven minutes in, and the spaceman himself a few seconds later. A few seconds after that, he gets shot for the first time, while he’s handing over a prezzie for the President. By this time, the idea is already becoming clear. We’re paranoid; we’re terrified of the unknown; there’s a good chance the guy from the outer galaxy might be a Communist; visitors to this planet are taking their lives in their own hands by coming here.

During this scene, we are also introduced to the alien’s travelling companion, a robot called Gort, (which is also the name of a town in County Galway, Ireland). Gort (the robot, that is) is enormous, and made from the same impregnable material as the ship. We know they are impregnable because the busybody Earthlings just can’t resist getting out the blowtorches and the diamond drills to try and break their way into both of them as soon as the opportunity arises.

The mission

Although quizzed in his hospital bed by the President’s secretary about the reason for his visit, the alien, Klaatu (played by the very tall, perfectly sculpted Rennie) refuses to reveal anything until he has all the world’s leaders assembled in one place. He is informed this is highly unlikely to ever happen. Even when Klaatu mentions the United Nations, an organisation which was still less than six years old by this time, he is met with cynicism.

Following his escape from the hospital, he eventually does decide to spill all to the super-intelligent Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), probably because, halfway through the movie, he realises that it’s time the plot was explained to the audience. Klaatu’s people want us to row back on all the nuclear activity before we take it out into space. Once our inter-galactic neighbours get a whiff of fission, or fusion, or whatever, above the atmosphere, it’ll be all over for us.

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The actual day the Earth stood still

It’s at this point that the film’s title comes into play. Since he can’t get anyone other than a gang of dusty old scientists to listen to him, Klaatu resorts to a “subtle” warning, by buggering up all the electronics in the entire world for half an hour one day. The ironic thing about this is that it is meant to be a peaceful example of Klaatu’s immense power. Even though we are informed that the power-out had no effect at all on hospitals or planes in flight, the result of the demonstration is to throw the people in power into panic. Suddenly, it’s no longer necessary to capture Klaatu alive. If this did indeed prove to be the actual reaction of our leaders towards one alien on the loose, while his entire species is monitoring us, I don’t give much for our chances.

Three little words

It is during the hunt for the alien that we are treated to one of those great iconic moments from my childhood.  Klaatu is worried that Gort will go robot-mental if anything happens to him, so, in the back of a taxi cab, he gives his new friend, Helen (Patricia Neal) a message for the robot:

“Klaatu barada nikto”

I’ll write that again:

“Klaatu barada nikto”

I still get goose bumps every time I hear that phrase. Initially, it appears to mean “Chill out, dude”, but it actually sends Gort off on a mission to rescue the alien. A little aside here: when asked about the ability to raise the dead, Klaatu answers that only the “Almighty Spirit” can do that, but he does have a machine that can restore life for a short time. I assume this is an attempt to sidestep any charge of blasphemy that might arise from the suggestion that aliens have that kind of divine power. Thankfully, these considerations seemed not to matter so much by the time ET was released three decades later.

Interestingly, although Klaatu knows a bit about the United Nations, and speaks English like a native New Englander, he doesn’t seem to know much about Abraham Lincoln or Arlington Cemetery. He also thinks that it’s normal to chuck diamonds about the place when you need to buy stuff.

Another point is that, in 1951, it seems less than a problem to leave your ten-year-old kid with a complete stranger while you go out on a date.

Tom, the rotter

I have to make mention here of an entertaining turn from Hugh Marlowe as Helen’s boyfriend, Tom. Initially, he is the very picture of an attentive, caring gentleman. Once he discovers the truth about the alien, however, it’s all change. He brings Klaatu’s diamond to three – not one, three! – jewellery stores to confirm that it’s “not of this Earth.” Later, he reveals to Helen – whom he mistakenly believes is a willing fiancée – that this new information will help him “write his own ticket”. He even says he doesn’t care about the rest of the world.

The Carpenter

The name which Klaatu chooses for himself is “Carpenter”. This profession is concerned with creating and constructing. Carpenters build structures to keep us safe and secure, security being the main plank of Klaatu’s visit. They also build bridges, but out of wood, and not as permanent as those made from steel or concrete. So, although Klaatu may have sturdy intentions, this is one mission he may not be able to nail.

There was also a certain historical carpenter whose peaceful message got him into hot water with the authorities. Following a few demonstrations of his power, he too had to be brought back from the dead. Parallels?

The final message

Despite TDTESS being a tremendous entry in the history of SF cinema, the ending left me a little confused. Klaatu has stated that there are no wars where he comes from, and he is stricken by the number of white crosses he sees in Arlington. His final speech emphasises the importance of both peace AND freedom, and yet he also informs us that Gort is actually a police officer. One of many such, his job is to patrol the universe putting a stop to aggression. However, the message is confused somewhat by the admission that these mechanical police officers have absolute power, and that this power cannot be revoked. Indeed, Klaatu had earlier warned that there was no telling what Gort was capable of doing if Klaatu were to be harmed. I felt there was something of an ambiguity in the system being described. The peace and freedom that Klaatu mentions is provided via heavy coercion.

I would be interested in getting your comments on this matter. There’s a box just below.

As a teaser, this very same subject (being good because the consequences of not being good are so huge) is at the heart of my next film blog.

 

The Thin Man

  • Spoiler AlertMy blogs are mainly suited to those who are already familiar with the films being reviewed. Tread carefully!

Director: W.S. Van Dyke

Produced by: Hunt Stromberg

Written by: Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich (based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett)

Starring: William Powell and Myrna Loy (as Nick & Nora Charles – what a couple!)

Year: 1934

 

Oh Nick, I love you. Because you know such lovely people

the_thin_man

The year 1934 is important in this context. It marked the end of that brief five-year period between the introduction of sound cinema and the implementation of the dreaded “Hays Code”, the Motion Picture Production Code, which introduced strict regulation on such entertaining cinema fare as sex and violence.

As a result, we are allowed to glimpse how cinema could have developed if such restrictions hadn’t been introduced. The Thin Man was made back when alcohol abuse was fun, and when couples could make salacious references on screen. It might seem tame today, but there’s no mistaking that look of shock on Nick’s face when his wife says that, in 1902, she was a glint in her father’s eye. This kind of line would soon be blackballed by the Hollywood moralists. Later, when a cop asks if they’ve ever heard of the Sullivan Act, she tells him: “It’s all right, we’re married”.

Nick and Nora (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are sharp, sassy socialites. He used to be a detective in New York, but gave it up four years earlier when his wife inherited a number of lucrative businesses. He informs the lawyer, McCauley, that he’s taking care of them for her. Whether that’s true or not, I can’t say. Apparently they’re back in the Apple for Christmas so that Nick can keep his wife off the drink (Ha ha!)

Of course, there’s also a mystery plot to be dealt with, and the balance between this and the pure Nick & Nora stuff is quite intriguing. Following an initial set-up, in which we meet a number of the minor characters – particularly irascible, forgetful, secretive Clyde Wynant – we do not get to meet Nick until 11 minutes in, and Nora almost two minutes later. Nick is onscreen for only 7 out of the film’s opening 27 minutes, and Nora for 5. The mystery is intriguing enough, what with so many suspects, a three-month disappearance, and at least three murders, but we really came here for the Charleses.

And what a couple they are! Almost everything between them is a joke, including their little moments of jealousy and bad temper. He tricks her into visiting Grant’s Tomb, and she says that she intends to get him one just like it. For a Christmas present, she gets him a toy gun, which he uses with glee. They throw a Christmas Eve party, to which they invite a host of criminals that Nick has put in prison. Best of all is how their shared love of alcohol is introduced. When we first meet Nick at a club, he is already well oiled, and is about to start his sixth martini. Following a little gentle chastisement, Nora, who has just ordered her first, asks the waiter to bring her five more, and line them up in front of her. Later, we see her suffering from a hangover. Quite remarkable for 1934!

They are child-like, but socially adept. Much of their communication is through silly walks and silly voices. They regularly pull faces at each other, even over the phone. Nick uses expressions like “shed the chapeau” (take off your hat), and says to a group of party guests: “highballs and cocktails; the long and the short of it”.

(Hotel rooms in the movies are always much bigger than any I’ve ever seen).

I must also mention the third member of this family. Asta, the Wirehaired Fox Terrier, has plenty of lovely moments in The Thin Man.  We see him regularly enter and leave the room as he’s either amused, disgusted, or nervous about Mummy and Daddy’s behaviour. He is also instrumental in the discovery of a vital piece of evidence.

As for the remainder of the cast:

  • Maureen O’Sullivan plays Wynant’s daughter, Dorothy. She was four years into her career, and had already played Tarzan’s pal, Jane, twice by this time. She would play her six times in total. It’s noticeable how much she resembles her daughter, Mia Farrow, in this film.
  • Nat Pendleton plays the detective on the case. He had started out as a circus strongman, and played similar characters in a number of movies. His most memorable moment sees him in a blonde curly wig struggling with a duvet in At The Circus, unaware that Harpo Marx is hiding inside it.
  • 32 years before he plastered his signature moustache in makeup to play The Joker, Cesar Romero was at the very beginning of his career in The Thin Man.

As regards the stars, Powell and Loy made six films together as Nick and Nora, spanning thirteen years between 1934 and 1947. They made fourteen films together in total.

One interesting point of note is that the thin man of the title is actually Wynand, who has disappeared, but is spotted frequently throughout the city. All of the film’s sequels contain the words “the thin man” in the titles, although this particular character never appears again.

The original novel was written by Dashiell Hammett, the man who created Sam Spade. The novel was published in January 1934, and the film was released four months later. Unlike the film, the book has no sequels.

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

  • Spoiler AlertMy blogs are mainly suited to those who are already familiar with the films being reviewed. Don’t read on if you’re afraid I might be ruining your life.

Director: Terence Fisher

Produced by: Anthony Hinds

Written by: Jimmy Sangster

Starring: Peter Cushing, Michael Gwynn, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson 

 

“A masterly dissection, Doctor Stein” (in reference to a cold chicken dinner)

 

Although the atmosphere and general setting of this sequel are very similar to the original (which I shall call Curse Of), the good people at Hammer Horror have chosen to take a different approach to this film’s plotting. This is one of the film’s primary strengths. It is a real sequel, rather than just a revisit. Curse Of was concerned with presenting the emergence and development of the wicked doctor, his relationships with women, and the youthful enthusiasm which he intended to use for the good of mankind. This film (which I shall call Revenge Of) presents a more jaded and bitter protagonist. He is irritated that the best he has been able to achieve is a mechanical brain operating a hand and a pair of comical eyes floating around in some sort of gunk. He goes on to boast to his new assistant that “They will never be rid of me”, even referring to his new creation as “my revenge”.

Interestingly, the Baron – now calling himself Doctor Stein – does not directly kill anyone in this film, considering that he committed two murders in the original. Nevertheless, his moral ambiguity is still plain. I found it a juicy irony that his labours in this film are more obviously for the public good, while he is secretly using, for his own ends, the arms and legs amputated from the poor and the filthy of Carlsbrook. The irony is extended by the fact that, whereas in Curse Of, the Baron found his creation’s brain by chucking the unfortunate Professor Bernstein from a great height through a poorly-constructed wooden rail, his current donor is a willing volunteer, the deformed servant, Karl.

The major plot change between the two movies lies in the identity of The Creature (as my boyhood magazines, Eerie and Creepy, used to call him). The mute, lumbering violence of Christopher Lee’s incarnation is replaced – at least initially – by the handsome sophistication of Michael Gwynn. Lee’s degeneration begins the instant we first see him, and is the result of a damaged brain, caused first by a scuffle between the Baron and his assistant, and later by a gunshot wound in a resplendently green forest. The suggestion in Revenge Of is that the failure of the experiment comes about via natural causes. It’s almost like Providence itself has decreed that this kind of interference in Nature will never work out. It’s not bullets and glass splinters that can be blamed for such an experiment ending in disaster; it is the very experiment itself.

And it’s that subject of respectability that makes this stuff work so well. Although I hail from a different time and place, I can appreciate the effect this kind of thing must have had on British audiences in the late 50s, before fanning out around the rest of the world. The characters behave with such politeness towards each other, and are so well spoken, that it gives an extra thrill to think of the butchery and villainy going on underneath. Frankenstein amputates the arm of a pickpocket, arguing coldly and abruptly that this will save the man’s life. He even jokes about how it will be more difficult for the man to continue stealing, as if the operation will cut away not only the man’s personal malady, but that of society as well. And yet, we later discover that the Baron’s motives were more personal than the saving of a life, and a good deal more criminal than anything the pickpocket has ever done.

Gwynn’s performance adds to this wonderful dichotomy. He is even more pitiable than Lee’s Creature, probably because he is more aware of what he has gained, and then lost. The crippled Karl wanted to be part of this experiment and, once he gains the freedom of his new body, he looks heart-rendingly like a child enjoying the thrill of its first steps. The physical and mental degradation he suffers is made more powerful by the speed at which it occurs, and the short time that he has had to experience his new body. The film’s high point sees his twisted, slavering, quite hideous body smash through the French windows of a society party. Had he arrived there a day earlier, he would have been welcomed (in that cold, offhand English way). His actual entrance creates shock and horror, not just because of its noisy violence, but also because of its vulgarity, even its rudeness. The destruction of that window is a little like the Baron’s destructiveness. It is both physical and social. When the medical council delegation goes to visit him, they are shown, not into his private office, but into the ward, where two dozen patients lie. The Chairman finds that he is physically accosted by the smell in the room, but, of course, he is considerably more injured by the lack of respect shown to him. This anarchic view of society is made all the more revolting for these people because of Doctor Stein’s immense popularity in Carlsbrook.

And this is where we come to the casting of Peter Cushing, the perfect embodiment of this social tension. As an actor, he exudes an air of sophistication and respectability, and yet the anger, the selfishness and the violence of the character is never far away. Let’s return to that society party for a moment. Although the big event is the smashing of the window, followed by The Creature begging Frankenstein for help (by name! Oh dear!), there is a much more subtle event a few minutes earlier which I love almost as much. The Baron is annoyed with his self-appointed nurse, Vera, for releasing the new Karl from his straps. He goes to the party in order to confront her. When he finds her, and has politely asked her companions to excuse them, he roughly grabs her by the arm and shoves her towards a corner. It is a moment of crudeness in a room filled with glittering jewellery and expensive outfits, where gentle classical music has been playing.

This lack of social respect is evidenced by the arc of the plot, which demonstrates Hammer’s growing confidence in its ability to continue. Curse Of ends with the seemingly inevitable demise of the Baron, as he is led towards a shadowy guillotine. This sequel, however, both begins and ends with his triumph. At the beginning, he is rescued from a sentence of death; at the end, he is brought back from death using a method he has devised himself. His assistant in the first film disowns and betrays him (even getting off with his wife, apparently), while Doctor Kleve in the second film actually holds fast and saves his life. His initial sentence was imposed by the officialdom of the law. His “second death” occurs when he is attacked by his own patients. During one film, the Baron has triumphed over both the upper and lower classes of society, as well as Death itself, and is back doing all the things he does so well. And he has finally arrived in England!

Hammer Horror itself seems to be echoing the view that they “they will never be rid of us”.

Whistle Down The Wind (1961)

  • Spoiler AlertMy blogs are mainly suited to those who are already familiar with the films being reviewed. Be careful how you tread!

Director: Bryan Forbes.

Produced by: Richard Attenborough.

Written by: Keith Waterhouse (his first screenplay, although written two years after his debut novel, Billy Liar) & Willis Hall.

Starring: Hayley Mills, Alan Bates, Bernard Lee, and a whole lot of Northern kids.

whistle-down-the-wind

 “Whyare you… and all them other kids… Why are you ‘elping me?”

“Because we love you”.

(Stunned silence).

 

In one of the more spine-tingling scenes of Whistle Down the Wind, Kathy Bostock (Hayley Mills) is instantly frightened by a strange man whom she disturbs in her father’s barn. She breathlessly asks him who he is. Apparently groggy, and with blood on his forehead, he mumbles “Jesus Christ!” just before passing out. The man is Arthur Alan Blakey, he is played by Alan Bates, and he will later be revealed as a fugitive killer. This moment is the fulcrum around which the film turns.

The film’s opening scene establishes pretty much all that is to follow. Farmhand Eddie (Normal Bird) is seen carrying a small sack along a country path in Lancashire while three children follow secretly behind. It turns out that the sack contains three kittens on their way to a drowning in the local lake. The kittens, however, are saved by the children. A few minutes later, we find out that Eddie, as well as being a pet disposal expert, also sets traps for other animals and birds, and even steals paraffin from his employer. These little facts demonstrate, as elsewhere in the film, that we’re all capable of getting up to no good. In fact, even though the film’s core is based around the mysterious stranger in the barn, there is very little said about the serious nature of his crimes. The children’s father (Bernard Lee) cautions Kathy – although strangely, not the other two – never to talk to strangers because “There’s some very funny people about these days; funny men, and that.” We are, however, exposed to plenty of other little crimes and misdemeanours throughout. Aside from Eddie’s mentioned above, we witness bullying, cruelty to animals, and plenty of lying and secret-keeping.

In between these scenes, we meet a troupe of Sally Army soldiers preaching in the village. The first words spoken in the film are “But he did come to me. And he did comfort me. I was alone, and I needed help.” It is at this point that the Jesus aspect of the tale first appears. Cathy’s young brother, Charlie (Alan Barnes) tries to give one of the kittens to the preacher, in order to save it from another – more fatal – ducking, but she fobs him off by reassuring him that Jesus will look after it. Charlie later gives the kitten, called Spider, to the stranger in the barn to look after. It is the little animal’s subsequent death – from neglect – that turns Charlie into Doubting Thomas, and cleverly shows the extent to which religion is based on superstition and supposition, and how Charlie’s ultimate scepticism comes from the fact that he doesn’t receive any discernible benefit from his belief in the stranger. I found it wonderfully ironic that Charlie later chooses to play the blind man at his birthday party, even though he is the only one of the children who chooses not to believe in the stranger.

For believe in him they do! In the beginning, there are only the three Bostock kids – Kathy, Charlie, and their sister, Nan – bringing gifts to The Man while the tune of “We Three Kings plays on the soundtrack. Later, they are joined on the road by nine others, making twelve. By the film’s end, every child in the village has gathered to pay his/her respects. These religious allegories permeate the film. Bookended by the sound of two train whistles, one of the young lads is forced – in an arm lock – to deny that he has seen Jesus. Then again. And again. Three times in all.

The blood on Blakey’s forehead looks like it was caused by thorns.

While he is being searched, his two arms are spread wide, just like on a cross.

Two of the film’s best moments involve the children questioning adults about faith. In the first, the Sunday school teacher becomes befuddled by the alarmingly mature nature of their questions, and reverts to superficial simplicity, even patronising the children, and getting them to repeat mantras about praising Him, and so on. In the second such scene, Kathy asks the vicar about death and why God allows it. His attitude is initially dismissive, then it becomes trite, and finally self-serving.

It is the simple belief of the children vs the cynicism of the adults which gives the film so much of its charm. The teacher, while referring to the possibility of yet another crucifixion in the event of Jesus coming back, refers simply to “the bad people” who would try to do him in, and “the good people” who would have to stop them. The children easily choose to believe Kathy’s assertions that it is indeed the Saviour in the barn, and their natural suspicion of their elders causes the children to choose en masse to protect him. At one stage, Kathy tells the man that they won’t let “the grownups” get him. “You’re quite safe with us”, she tells him.  The children are influenced by the entertaining religious stories and parables they have heard, and have little interest in the real news stories of the day. As such, they would have been largely unaware of the possible presence of a suspected murderer in the area.

This divide between children and grownups is notable throughout the film. In the late 50s and early 60s, it seems, communication between the generations was hardly considered important. Little Charlie is chastised every time he says or does anything. The children’s aunt spends the film in a silent surly rage, unable to speak in a warm tone about anything. (In fairness, she treats their father in much the same way). Farmer Bostock’s tentative advice about strangers is cloaked in mystery. Even at the end, he still can’t tell Kathy the truth.

I found it intriguing that the children, while believing they were doing good, still found themselves lying at every turn, and even stealing food, money and cigarettes – although no matches – for Blakey. On one occasion, Kathy even asks him to forgive her for bringing him so much contraband.

The casting of Alan Bates is quite inspired. With his bearded face and light-coloured eyes, he possesses the convincing handsomeness we would expect of The Son of Man, but there’s a darkness – even a violence – just beneath the surface. Although we are always aware of the threat he represents, he gives us a number of redemptive moments – the guilt of being found brandishing a broken bottle; the shame of allowing the kitten to die; the final acceptance of his fate.

Listening to the film was just as nostalgic as watching it. Malcolm Arnold’s whistling theme tune brought me back to my childhood (as did all the talk of outside lavvies, sick calves, and using an open newspaper to stoke the fire). One notable musical moment comes when Kathy brings Nan to see Blakey for the first time. We hear the sound of harps, with a subtle organ tone in the background, but these are joined by a more ominous string sound, adding a touch of menace to the angelicism.

There are motifs of freedom and captivity throughout. Charlie saves a bird from one of Eddie’s traps in much the same way that, earlier, the kittens were rescued from his attempts to drown them. The children run freely through the countryside, while Blakey is almost entirely confined to the barn. Early on, this space looks like a sort of manger. By the end, he has stepped out of it into his own Garden of Gethsemane. The final conversation between Kathy and Blakey – and the most moving scene in the film – takes place while she is outside speaking to him through a high window, suggesting that he is in a cell. As she hugs the stone, her eyes looking up towards the window, it looks like her admonitions are going up to Heaven, but she is literally talking to the wall.