Thursday, 26 February 2015

Profondo Rosso (Deep Red)




Flats N’ Sharps

Profondo Rosso (Deep Red)
Italy 1973
Directed by Dario Argento
Special 40th Anniversary screening at the 
Barbican with live score accompaniment by Goblin

So this was yet another revisit to what was, for me, the third of Dario Argento’s movies that I saw all those years ago, after first seeing Suspiria and Tenebrae. Not one I was due to look at again anytime soon... not because it’s not a great movie (it’s fantastic) but because there are so many films I haven’t seen yet by so many people which get first priority. However, with the promise of a reformed Goblin providing their score live (they left the George Gaslini material on the soundtrack of the print they were using) headed up by the one and only Claudio Simonetti on keyboards, this was a screening I really didn’t want to miss out on.

Profondo Rosso is Argento’s fifth film as a director, although he did provide a few screenplays for films before his early classics and is perhaps notable for working with Sergio Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Donatti on the story for Leone’s epic Once Upon A Time In The West, seven years before he directed this film. It’s also the fourth giallo he made after taking a break from his animal trilogy of gialli (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies On Grey Velvet) to work on Le Cinque Giornate. After the relative failure of that film at the box office, when compared to his phenomenally successful trilogy, Profondo Rosso was seen as very much a welcome return to the genre for the man who, right from the start of his directorial career, had become known as “the Italian Hitchcock”. And, of course, it was also another smash hit.

The film stars British actor David Hemmings and Dario’s then lover (and mother to his daughter, the famous Asia Argento) Daria Nicolodi as, respectively, the witness of a horrific murder and a reporter who wants to nail the story. The film starts off, after an off camera but bloody murder set to a lullaby style theme written by George Gaslini, with the presence of a supernatural element in the guise of a lady who becomes the film’s second victim (if you count that opening murder sequence). She is a psychic in a stage demonstration of her mysterious powers who picks up the presence of a killer and draws attention to the fact that there is a murderer in the theatre. This supernatural/psychic element of the story, along with talk of a house where ghosts dwell later in the movie, is really just a tool for Argento to get things moving. When the psychic lady drops out of the movie in a violent sequence near the start of the film, that unearthly element also drops out and so this is not, in fact, a horror movie like Argento’s next film, Suspiria, would be. Profondo Rosso stays well inside giallo territory throughout the running time and it’s important, I feel, not to get the two genres confused (as many do, for some reason).

The film continues as an investigation of the murder by David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi, as more bodies pile up and Hemmings wrestles with a mysterious puzzle piece in his mind of something he’s missing from when he rushed into the flat of the murdered woman at the start, who the killer left bloodily hanging out her smashed window. This, of course, ties it in thematically to Argento’s directorial debut The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, in that both films have a central protagonist who was both an eye witness to the opening key ‘event’ and who has to try and unlock the one thing that his brain is hiding from him to solve the mystery. Now Argento is quite bold in both The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Profondo Rosso because he actually does show the audience exactly what those protagonists see in those specific scenes. Now in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, I had no troubles at all in seeing the answer to the end of the movie within the first five minutes of the film while the character, played in that film by Tony Musante, saw it happening. In that film the clue comes in the way in which the eye witness and the audience perceive what they are seeing. This didn’t spoil the movie for me, it’s too well put together, but I did see the ending coming a mile off in that one.

Similarly, in Profondo Rosso we are shown the identity of the murderer in exactly the same way that David Hemmings is shown the information but, like him and almost guaranteed on the first time you watch the movie, you miss it because you perceive it as something else completely. Which is great because when the killer is finally revealed, and we suddenly wonder if we’ve been misled, we are fortunate enough now to be living in the age of the home video system and you can rewind to the original scene, once the trick of it has been revealed at the film’s denouement, and prove to yourself that Argento didn’t cheat his audience. Of course, back when this was released, this wasn’t possible as it pre-dated home video systems and I wonder just how much of the film’s large box office take was due to repeat performance attendances as people went back to the cinema to make sure the footage revealed at the end was indeed in the opening reel. It’s a great trick for bumping up box office, I suspect.

Another similarity between the two films is that the killer is, just before the final scenes, revealed to be a different character than who it actually is... and that someone is a) covering up for the real killer and b) violently killed while the main characters still believe that person is the culprit. When the real killer is revealed, there is also another link between the two films but... I really don’t want to tell you what that is because, if you’ve never seen either movie, then I really don’t want to spoil the pleasure you’ll get from the unravelling of the thread leading to the conclusion of each film.

Another commonality between the movies, which seems to be almost a stylistic trait for Argento at this point in time, is the fascination with the pondering and highlighting of flat surfaces. In The Bird With The Crystal Plumage we have the two glass doors which trap Tony Musante between them and hold him a captive audience for the first ‘incident’ and we have the constant pondering of the painting by an artist which gives a clue to the killer’s identity, and which Musante keeps coming back to. In Profondo Rosso we have the paintings on the walls again, we have the surface of the wall with the child’s drawing underneath the dried paint... not to mention the wall that Hemmings spends a lot of time bashing through to find the skeleton of the very first murder victim from the opening of the movie. We also have the scene where a lady who has pretty much had her face boiled off (possibly in tribute to the fate of the character played by Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat but in a more graphically revealing sequence) writes her name in the condensation on the side of a bath as she lays dying and another character’s realisation of the possible location of a message on the flat, reflective surface as he turns on the hot taps to reveal what has been written. So, yeah, there seems to be a prominent fixation on flat surfaces in certain early works in Argento’s oeuvre, it seems to me.

The film is one of the all time great giallo movies of Italian cinema of the period and it shares all the trademarks that you would expect from one of these. The gialli tended to have bad acting, bad scripts, beautiful photography and shot design that takes your breath away, fantastic editing, wonderful camera movement through the sets and absolutely killer music. Profondo Rosso is no different although the screenplay is a little better than one might expect. The acting by various cast members is pretty good too although, even with people of the calibre of David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi, there are moments when the acting seems a little over the top. However, I have a new theory about why that is, actually... and it’s all due to Luigi Cozzi’s later science fiction movie Star Crash...

In Star Crash (reviewed here) we have a groovy movie with one of my favourite actresses, Caroline Munro, playing the central character Stella Star. Now there’s a bit fairly early on in the movie where she is having a conversation with her companion in her star ship and she suddenly, in the final cut, yells the words “Go for hyperspace” in, frankly, a way that seems seriously too enthusiastic to fit in the scene at that point. It draws attention to itself in an unnecessary way and I always thought... well that’s a pretty bad slip up from Caroline on this one. However, as I found out years later... it wasn’t her fault at all, it’s the fault of the edit. To explain, when one of the last DVDs came out of Star Crash... I think it’s the beautiful one put out by Shout Factory in the US... there are a load of deleted scenes and also extended versions of scenes which were pared down in the final cut and the scene I just described is one of those included in a much longer version than it’s presented in the final movie. In the full version of the scene, there is a lot more dialogue between the two characters and Munro naturally reaches that point in her performance where her line “Go for hyperspace” makes much more sense in the way in which she delivers it. However, when Luigi Cozzi cut a load of that dialogue out in the finished version, he kills her performance in that scene and the line seems almost nonsensical in the context of the pared down cut. So, in a similar spirit, I think it’s quite possible that Argento might have done something similar with some of the scenes between Hemmings and Nicolodi (who have great chemistry together) in this one, and might be the root cause of the excess one might detect in certain sections of this movie (and seeing the longer cut with the Italian sections in helps with that too... but that’s another story and one of many I can’t take up space on in this review). But, obviously, that’s just a theory.

All the good stuff you expect from this genre niche is present and correct, though. The mise en scene is bloody fantastic... as well as being fantastically bloody in one or two places, and the music, by both George Gaslini and Goblin, is phenomenal, of course. Now I don’t want to go into too much detail about why both Gaslini and Goblin ended up supplying music for this film... but I do seem to remember that it was Nicolodi who introduced Argento to Goblin and the rest, as they say, is Italian genre cinema history. I think Goblin had about three progressive rock albums out before working on Profondo Rosso, at least one of them under a different band name (Cherry Five) but this was their first go at writing and performing the score to a movie. It was, of course, phenomenally successful for them and they would do many more films for Argento and for other directors in their career.

I’ll spare you the explanations of possibly why there are so many incarnations of the band over the years and why it was important for me that the version of the band playing at the Barbican was headed up by the composer Claudio Simonetti on keyboards, but I will say that the sound that Goblin produced for this movie was hugely influential to giallo and, even more so, to horror films... both in their native Italy and in the US actually. For example, American horror maestro John Carpenter had made two amazing films, both with scores by him, before his breakout film Halloween (which were Dark Star and Assault On Precinct 13... both much more well known movies these days, of course). However, if you listen to his score for Halloween, and even certain sections of the music for his fantastic movie The Fog, and then go back and listen to what Goblin did for Profondo Rosso, it’s almost impossible to imagine the scores for those specific Carpenter movies existing without Simonetti’s group making popular the concept of playing through a sequence with a hard, progressive rock guitar or synthesiser line. For his previous three gialli, Argento had worked with the master of Italian film scoring Ennio Morricone, which gave him three jazzy and sometimes atonal, absolutely beautiful scores (Argento would return to Morricone for his awful version of Phantom Of The Opera and his brilliant movie The Stendhal Syndrome years later). After Goblin scored Profondo Rosso, the heavy beat fuelled, driven school of scoring became the norm for a while and I’m sure many composers were asked to produce Goblin-like scores after the impact of both this and Suspiria.

That being said, the live accompaniment at this special screening of Profondo Rosso felt a bit flat for the first hour. Not because of anything wrong with what Goblin were doing, they were brilliant. However, what I and probably a lot of audience members didn’t necessarily realise is that the movie is quite loosely ‘spotted’ during the first half. There are some small snatches of score at regular intervals but nothing really to get your teeth into for too long during the first half and then, presumably because the Barbican venue wanted to sell loads of beers in the intermission, they foolishly put a 20 minute interval halfway through the film. Which, to be honest, kind of killed things a bit, for a while. The lady I was with for the screening, who was almost as familiar, if not more so, with the film as I was, actually considered going home in the interval because she was so disappointed. However, I persuaded her to stay (silver tongued devil that I am) and I’m glad I did because the next hour of the movie has a lot more music in it and has some key and truly toe tapping cues which Goblin performed amazingly well. I found the way the drummer managed to keep hitting the symbols, Mickey Mousing David Hemming’s attacks on the wall as his hammer bashed through each time, absolutely mesmerising. This was good stuff.

And then, after the movie had finished, came the piece de resistance. Goblin then played through long versions of some of their classic Argento tunes in a kind of mini concert encore to the movie, starting off with two that Argento produced but didn’t direct himself which were Demoni (Demons) and Zombi (Dawn Of The Dead... and not the track that is usually covered from that film but one of the longer, main action cues). They then followed these up with full renditions of the themes from Suspiria, Phenomena and Tenebrae and, frankly, it was a real treat. I didnt get home until midnight that night but I had a really good time at the concert.

So, final verdict in terms of this mini review... yeah, if you’re not familiar with either Dario Argento or the giallo genre at all then Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red) is definitely one of the great ones to start with. Like most of these kinds of movies, especially Argento’s, it’s a tour de force of moving camera taking you to extraordinary shots and places and, for all the flaws that you often find in the genre, it’s an absolutely brilliant experience... more so on a big screen, of course. So definitely take a look at this one if you’ve never seen it and certainly, if you get the opportunity, catch Goblin’s 40th Anniversary tour of the movie with live musical accompaniment. It’s good to still see some of these guys going after all these years and, seriously, they rock!

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Duke Of Burgundy





50 Shades Of Burgundy

The Duke Of Burgundy
2015  UK
Directed by Peter Strickland 
UK cinema release print.

I found Peter Strickland’s last movie, Berberian Sound Studio (reviewed here) somewhat disappointing.

Partially this was due to the publicity surrounding the film where various critics were, quite inexcusably, trying to describe the film in terms of some vague stylistic leanings to Italian giallo cinema which, seriously, the film fails to live up to... if anything it bears much more resemblance to mid-80s American surrealism via David Lynch than anything any of the great giallo directors (such as Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, Dario Argento etc) would have concocted. The same viewpoint the critics had of that film also seems to have been upheld by the director himself and I kind of wonder why a man clearly intelligent enough to make what is, at the very least, interesting cinematic experiences, is mis-selling his product like this. The various critics who jumped on this pseudo-giallo band wagon were equally inexcusable and, frankly, should have been educated enough about movies to know better considering their vocation. If you really want to see a modern movie which has some of the stylistic leanings of the great gialli, or at least uses the same cinematic syntax to fulfil a story idea, then check out movies like Amer (reviewed here), Tulpa (reviewed here) and The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (reviewed here).

Mind you, although I was disappointed in Strickland’s previous movie, I was still quite looking forward to his next feature because he is obviously a significant artist (whether I like his product or not) and he is bound to do something interesting when you let him loose with a camera and an editing suite. My interest was further compounded when I heard that the film would be tackling the somewhat volatile area of a D/s BDSM relationship with an all female cast. BDSM is, of course, the current ‘catch all’ term for what we, in the good old days, used to call S&M. It stands for Bondage, Domination, Sadism & Masochism (depending on which websites you read) and D/s is equal to dominant/submissive, the choice of upper or lower case signifying the apparent hierarchy of the two roles to each other... although that’s always a sticky question and it’s one I’ll come to in a minute because the film actually explores that duality as the trappings of its primary story objective.

First of all, though, I’ll tell you why I was so disappointed by this film... and it’s all down to the 'homage' inherent in the storyline. A couple of years ago I watched a classic 1969 movie called Scacco Alla Regina aka Check To The Queen and you can read my review of it here. The film deals with a D/s relationship between two women and it’s a light, possibly misleading but enthusiastic exploration of the subject matter. Unfortunately, The Duke Of Burgundy, while having a kind of small chamber concerto feel to it, compared to the orchestral deluge of the earlier film, seems pretty much to be an update of the former. So much so, in fact, that even the gorgeous score to the new film, by a group called Cat’s Eyes seems to me to be, shall we say... heavily influenced by Piero Piccioni’s score to Scacco Alla Regina. And when I say heavily influenced, there was even a scene in The Duke Of Burgundy when it sounds like the director had cut the sequence to a track from Check To The Queen (often called the temp track in film music) and the band had copied it almost note by note... I don’t know whether he did actually do that, of course, or whether the group was specifically influenced by that track on that score for that scene... but I do find it an amazing coincidence that the scoring should be so similar.

Of course, all this had the effect of breaking my concentration and popping me out of the movie I was trying to watch.

Now, to be far to Strickland, the movie does have a slightly different ending and the relationship between the ‘dominant woman’, or ‘top’ as it is often known in the BDSM lifestyle... and the ‘submissive woman’, or ‘bottom’, is such that it plays with the common notion of just who is in the dominant position in the relationship. The apparent top in the film is called Cynthia and played just beautifully by Sidse Babett Knudsen. Her apparent bottom is called Evelyn and played, also very well, by Chiara D'Anna. However, after the first ten minutes, it becomes apparent that the relationship is suffering from a very common malady in ‘the scene’ known as ‘topping from the bottom’. In any safe, sane and consensual (SSC) or even RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) BDSM relationship, it’s recognised that the person who takes the submissive role is very much in control of the situation in reality, to a certain extent, due to the exploration of areas within a specific individual’s chosen limits (which he or she will have communicated to their top before hand) and the probable use, although not always, of a safe word to either immediately stop the activity in hand or, depending on how you’re playing, alter the flow of the session (referred to as a ‘release word’ in this film, presumably to cater to an audience who might be unfamiliar with the concept and named after a type of moth, Pinastri).

When this gets out of hand in real life is when the demands made by the submissive role get very specific, profuse and prescriptive in their nature. How much topping from the bottom is happening is basically based on just how much the dominant individual is comfortable with allowing their sub to shape the play... most dominants tend to nip this in the bud fairly quickly or just terminate the relationship (from what I’ve been led to believe, you understand, honest guv) but there are, equally, cases where this kind of dynamic in the relationship can work quite well. The one depicted in the movie, however, doesn’t seem to be working all that well at times and is more about the way the two central protagonists test their own limits and how it stretches and forces them to examine their love for each other.

This is actually beautifully done and the scenes of, for instance, Cynthia constantly drinking in order to ensure a timely supply of urine to pee into her subs mouth as a ‘punishment’ is one of a few little quirky details which make this film worth watching (although her constant drinking was making me very thirsty throughout the course of the film... couldn’t wait to get out of there and grab a bottle of water). The acting is truly tremendous and is especially comical and simultaneously revealing in a scene where Evelyn is demanding a stern narrative as she masturbates to orgasm and Cynthia can’t keep up and dries up in her monologue... watch Sidse Babett Knudsen’s face in the interchanges between the two in this scene and it’s absolutely wonderful acting.

The film is, like Berberian Sound Studio, a feast of gorgeous and, often, static shot compositions, beautiful experiments in sound design and with a truly amazing butterfly sequence towards the end of the movie. All the characters in this story are specialists in the science of lepidopterology, hence the title of the movie, and the use of various butterflies as a metaphor in the relationship between the two women comes to a kind of ‘visual and audio wipe out’ sequence which is truly dazzling and, quite possibly, very brave of the director in the current climate of audiences primed for movies with more dialogue (indeed, there are vast stretches of the film without the intrusion of dialogue and that’s quite refreshing).

So, yeah, lovely film to look at, brilliant performances, astounding sound design, competent editing and a dazzling score which really deserves a CD release rather than a stupid digital release. The downside for me, however, is it always seems to be a pseudo remake of Scacco Alla Regina (Check To The Queen) and, worse than that, does nothing unexpected or really provocative during its running time. There’s another film out at the moment dealing with BDSM, you might have heard of it, called Fifty Shades Of Grey... it’s been given short shrift by a lot of the BDSM community although I think the reasons given for that, in that it portrays and abusive and non-consensual version of BDSM, are not completely the main motive for that, since a large majority of BDSM literature and art portrays non-consensual activities as the main part of the fantasy (as opposed to the reality). I suspect the case with Fifty Shades Of Grey is more that, because it’s so popular and introduced the concept of BDSM to so many people, the negative portrayal has become a “poster gal” for the community and it’s a bit of a damning and unfortunate one... so I can completely sympathise with the hostile attitude towards it. The Duke Of Burgundy is a film that I was hoping would be the cinematic antidote to the ‘other’ film but, alas, although I suspect it’s more emotionally intelligent and more striking a sample of the art, I fear the attitudes explored in this one to give it the required dramatic weight, make this almost as bad an example, in some ways, of the lifestyle and its practice... although to be fair to Strickland and co, it’s at least a much more responsible exploration of the area.

Ultimately, I was disappointed in this movie, just like I was with his last feature, but I do have to stress here that it is a very beautiful film and if you are not already familiar with the big, broad stroke concepts of the BDSM lifestyle which are covered here, then I’m sure some viewers will get really wrapped up in it and enjoy it on a more visceral level than I myself was able to respond to it. So I guess, my recommendation would be, if you’re into BDSM then don’t expect to see anything you haven’t seen before. If you’re into European exploitation movies of the 1960s and 1970s then, again, don’t expect too much. If you are less familiar with these areas then you will probably have a blast with this movie... the texture and tone of which is like an incredible painting you’ll want to reach out and eat. Don’t expect ot see anything explicit in this movie (seriously, this should have been at most a 15 certificate, if not a 12) or you’ll be less disappointed for your expectations... that’s probably the best way to go into this one, I think. Without too many great expectations.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Invasion




Raiders Of The 
Lost Matriarchy

Invasion
UK 1966
Directed by Alan Bridges
Network DVD Region 2

Invasion is actually not a film I’d heard of before Network handily brought it out on DVD at the tail end of 2014... which is kind of surprising given its pedigree. Everything about it seems so comfortable and, well, British... and I find it hard to fathom that I’d never caught a showing of it on TV sometime in the 1970s or 1980s to be honest.

It’s a curious film and perhaps one of the reasons why the plot set up seems so familiar is that the screenplay is based on a story idea by Robert Holmes, who would later go on to be a regular contributor to Doctor Who. Many have said there are similarities between the main concept of Invasion and the first of his Jon Pertwee stories, Spearhead From Space (reviewed here), for instance. However, I think Invasion has less in common with that serial and more in common with the historical story legacy of Doctor Who long after Holmes death. Indeed, the David Tennant episode Smith and Jones and the first full Matt Smith story The Eleventh Hour, seem to me to have much more in common with this film than the earlier Holmes episodes. Those two, in particular, look like they’ve been extensively cribbed from this movie.

So Invasion is, basically, a black and white British B-movie science fiction film and, frankly, it’s one of the more entertaining ones I’ve seen. I really don’t understand why this film is not better known. The film starts with a military radar monitoring outpost and the low budget arrival of a spaceship on Earth... you don’t see anything but air being tracked by the camera against eerie noise and the “impression” left in the ground from where the spaceship came down initially (until the final couple of minutes of the movie when some real footage of rockets have been spliced in with the footage... although a smaller escape capsule is seen at one point). A man and his secret lover return from a party and accidentally knock down a figure in the road. After some argument they take the Asian looking figure to the local hospital and it’s here that things start to go really wrong for everyone.

The figure in the road is a being from, as far as can be gathered, a matriarchal society on another world. He feeds the doctors and nurses lies about his reasons for being there when actually he is an escaped prisoner and the aliens who are looking for him, both females of the species, have been transferring him from their world to a prison colony on another planet before they crashed on Earth. For some reason, all three aliens are played by actors or actresses of Chinese, Japanese or Korean extraction... and this is badly addressed in the script when one of the characters asks an Asian nurse if the patient is Chinese or Japanese... to which she replies in the negative. Oh, right, so must be aliens then and we’re certainly not picking on any specific racial stereotypes to identify the aliens for the audience then, are we?

Actually, while I’m on the subject, the aliens in this story are from the planet Lister and are referred to at one point as Listerines. Hmmm... quite apart from the fact that the aliens don’t seem to realise they are going around under the name of a famous antiseptic mouthwash that’s been going since 1879, the clothes they are wearing may seem vaguely familiar to any fans of kaiju eiga. That is to say, the Asian actors in this are wearing tight fitting latex jumpsuit style outfits which aren’t exactly a million miles away from the clothes the Asian aliens in such Gojira films as Invasion Of The Astro Monster (aka Godzilla VS Monster Zero, also from 1965) were wearing... so I'm wondering if their was any direct influence or borrowing going on from the costume department here as an exercise in visual short hand?

Anyway, the guy who knocked the alien over goes home and, in a nice “jump scare” moment involving some okay photography and suspenseful build up through editing, is startled by looking up at a cat on the roof of his porch and, when he looks down, there are the alien ladies standing before him. They nobble him, apparently by accident as it’s eluded by one of them that he has had a heart attack, in search of the alien’s identifying mechanism thingy which he pulled out of his car after taking the original alien to hospital... although they don’t seem to be able to find it in its carefully hidden resting place of... 'just been thrown on the nearest table'. I’ll come back to this 'thingy' in a minute. There’s a terribly big plot hole forming here, I’m afraid.

It’s not long before one of the aliens goes undercover in the hospital by disguising herself as the Japanese nurse and really being very convincing at not being spotted as an imposter by the other staff and patients in the hospital. Meanwhile, a force field is raised around the building and now that the leading characters Doctor Mike Vernon (played by Edward Judd), Doctor Claire Harland (played by Valerie Gearon) and their new military friends are kind of aware of, and totally believing in, what is occurring... the air is slowly running out in the hospital and grounds. There’s actually a really nicely done and completely unexpected shock effect moment in this where one of the Hospital staff goes to fetch help and is killed as his car crashes into the invisible force field, revealed for the first time here, as he goes through the window of the crumpled car. The music is non existent during this, and many other scenes, but the low key atmosphere really works well within this kind of claustrophobic setting, I think.

After this, Mike goes on a mission to retrieve the 'alien thingy' at the original driver’s house by going through the sewers. When he returns with the device he is confronted by the alien lady in the hospital who, it seems, couldn’t care less about the device and just wants to be taken to the prisoner so she can take him back into custody... which is where the plot gets really odd actually because, she’s known where he is all along, actually helping the other nurses look after him. This makes no sense people!

The fun and games continue with the original alien taking Mike’s sweetheart Claire hostage as he tries to make his way to his crashed escape capsule, including a very unsatisfactory deus ex machina kind of ending which just seems tagged on for a quick resolution. Now, to be fair, the main factors which make the initial and promising idea of the premise of a hospital under siege by aliens are totally ridiculous and unworkable in terms of the way the story works... or doesn’t work in this case. That being said though, I don’t want this fact to detract that the film is actually a great little gem of a movie which I wish I’d known about sooner. It moves along at its own rate and there’s a very British lack of emotion and acceptance inherent in the main characters but... although I suspect some people might find the lack of over emoting a trifle unsettling, I really didn’t mind it and felt kind of “at home” with the characters.

There are some truly nice compositions in the shot design, with a lot of diagonally perspective walls and hospital screens offset on either side to bring characters in to the middle area of a shot, for example, in a way that must have been really great to see on a  big screen on this film’s initial cinematic release. The acting is very good, for the most part, with no real “theatricals” from anyone... even the token human obstacle at the hospital, the one who has a terminally unfortunate accident with the force field, seems to be acting from his own viewpoint of common sense and doesn’t throw up his oppositional ideas without sound reasoning... so that’s all good.

The music is something else again. I’d not heard of the composer Bernard Ebbinghouse before but his score is not very prominent in the film for the most part and, during those parts, it’s quite effective, slightly jazzy in style and low key, in keeping with the rest of the atmosphere of the film. There was at least one moment, however, towards the end, when the music went into full overkill on something that really didn’t warrant it and it had me scratching my head as to why it was used and mixed into the foreground of the foley like this when it was blatantly inappropriate for the scene in question... which makes me wonder if the cue had been composed for that part of the movie at all or maybe just tracked in by the sound people trying to fix something else in the mix, maybe. For the most part, though, the film is very minimally spotted in terms of the music and it tends to work quite well for a lot of the time.

All in all, then, I think Invasion is a great little find and something I’d be quite happy to see on a semi-regular basis (once every five or six years)... maybe as the first half of a double bill with The Earth Dies Screaming, perhaps, which has a similar atmosphere to it, is also almost forgotten and which is even more amazing than this film. The new Network DVD is a really nice print although, much as I hate censorship (and I do, don’t get me started) I was surprised to find that a film with a shot of a photo in a... ahem... gentleman’s magazine (no, ladies, not trying to be sexist here, just talking about it in the context of the time) and a scene where blood is visible after a man has been stabbed in the gut, managed to get a PG rating. I’m not complaining and I don’t think it would do most kids any harm whatsoever... but it does seem to be a bit of a contradiction when pitched against other, more hair raising and angering decisions by the BBFC where they've sliced out or given films higher certification for far less than even this small amount of nudity and bloodshed.

Seriously though, Invasion is a real little treasure of B movie nonsense if you are into science fiction and much thanks to Network for making this available finally to, what I imagine, is a fairly unsuspecting public. Take a look at this one if you are a lover of British sci-fi and appreciate some well lit, black and white photography.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Quiller Memorandum



Quiller Instinct

The Quiller Memorandum
UK/USA 1966
Directed by 
Michael Anderson
Network BluRay Zone B

The Quiller Memorandum is, along with The IPCRESS File (reviewed here) and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, one of my three favourite spy movies. It’s also, quite probably, the most intelligent movie ever made... and there are lots of contributing factors as to why this is so... which I’ll explore here. However, the alignment of all these things to produce one of the most devastating, and mostly ignored (at least in its day) spy movies of all time is almost miraculous.

The first contributing factor is that it’s based on the 1965 novel The Berlin Memorandum by Adam Hall, one of many pen names used by writer Elleston Trevor. It’s the first of 19 books written between 1965 and 1996 to feature Quiller and, since the movie was released in 1966, the first novel has gone out with the title The Quiller Memorandum on all subsequent reprints.

The thing about the Quiller books is that they are the full on, tough underbelly of spy fiction. Now Le Carre can be coolly intellectual with his books, no doubt about it, but the Quiller series is quite a bit more chilling than that and, though the various novels are probably a tad more visceral than Le Carre’s novels, they are as smart as a whip and the main title character doesn’t mess around. He’s no nonsense and you know his every thought and reaction, except for when Hall needs to surprise the reader with a smartly revealed twist, because the events that take place are all told from the first person narrative viewpoint. The reader is transported directly into Quiller’s internal monologue, right in his brain and body (or perhaps “the organism” as he likes to refer to himself) and you know from this that Quiller is an efficient, possibly blunt, instrument in the battle against the enemies of his country. He is never off the job and, although you admire the character’s cooly objectified feats, you really would never want to be this guy... and you certainly can’t imagine someone as warm as George Segal playing him (and I’ll get on to that in a little while because Segal turns in a ‘career best’ in his performance at bringing Quiller to life, here).

I started reading the Quiller books when I was a teenager and have them all tucked away somewhere. All read cover to cover and I can only recommend them above and beyond any other spy fiction out there (with the possible exception of the original Modesty Blaise novels, which are also unbelievably good). If you’re going to do Adam Hall’s Quiller books right then you need a writer who can turn the stories and, more importantly, the personality of the central character and the way he interacts with the dangerous world about him (a world where a misplaced half-word can mean death) into something that is going to carry in a more visually oriented medium.

Enter Harold Pinter...

Oh yeah. Nobel Prize-winning English playwright and one of the most famous theatre writers of all time.

That Harold Pinter.

He wrote the screenplay for The Quiller Memorandum and, frankly, it really shows. He perfectly renders the world of the central protagonist and the various other characters in a way which is pitched at the two levels this kind of story needs to be perceived by the audience. Secret agents or spies, or whatever you want to call them, live in a world of deep undercover. They are operating at a shadow level where what they say and do is just a tool to get the information they require. In the books, as in the film, Quiller is run by a different ‘director in the field’ in each novel, with the occasional repeat show. Quiller and any of the other operatives can refuse a director, as long as a replacement can be found. This isn’t made implicit in the movie version but it is obliquely referred to, coming under the catch all of “allowed to use any methods I like to get the results” line that George Segal gives his director in the field, played in the movie by Alec Guiness. Seriously a great cast in this one.

Anyway, my point is, the agents are working at two levels and anything and everything which is seen on the surface is purely there as a front to hide, and sometimes to reveal, the job at hand. Pinter manages to pick up on this very nicely, as you would expect, and writes the movie on two totally separate levels. It’s extremely subtle and, from what I’ve heard from people talking about the movie in the past, it’s not always as easy to “get” on your first viewing. I was lucky in that I’d actually read one or two of the books first, so I already knew that when somebody says something in this film, you don’t necessarily take it at face value... least of all if it’s coming from the mouth of Quiller.

I’ll explore this idea a little more in a minute but so far we have two very big elements to make the wind blow right - Adam Hall and Harold Pinter. And you also have a load of great actors including George Segal, Alec Guiness and Senta Berger. Berger, I guess, could be easily mistaken for the romantic interest, if you really are going to be watching it on that level (she really isn’t, as I’ll demonstrate later).

So you have Hall, Pinter plus Segal and co... and then you have the director and cinematographer and the guy doing the editing etc. And it’s all good. Now, granted, it’s not as technically brilliant and awe inspiring as Sidney J. Fury and Peter Hunt’s work on The IPCRESS File, but it’s still very good and, coupled with.... I’m saying it right out now... probably the most intelligent screenplay ever written, certainly for a mid-sixties spy movie... you have a really potent cocktail. Quiller’s world is a world of hard ice and, if you were in any doubt as to that, you add the final ingredient into the mix... John Barry.

John Barry’s score, based on the Wednesday’s Child melody written for the film and sung by Matt Monro in a radio in Quiller’s hotel, is even chillier than his score for The IPCRESS File. It’s stunning, filled with menace and is nicely understated in certain areas, showing it a strong match for a film which specialises in understated dialogue and incredibly subtle acting throughout the running time. It’s another thing that helps transport the movie into a realm of high art that most things never quite reach, in comparison. This film really is an amazing phenomenon.

The Quiller Memorandum starts off quite grim and low key and rarely gets above that pitch throughout the movie... unless you’re listening to the words the characters speak as opposed to the words behind what the characters say. There is a subdued instrumental Opening Title arrangement of John Barry’s Wednesday’s Child theme... not the more famous,  full blown, barrel organ version of the theme you will hear later in the movie. And one single, 2.35:1 shot of a street in Berlin at night with a phone box taking up the extreme left of the screen. The credits appear superimposed on the rest of the screen next to the phone box and, apart form the credits changing, the shot is entirely static, with the low key music playing over the top. As the final director credit goes up, the shot cuts to higher up and a little further closer to the other end of the street, excluding the phone box... as we see a nameless secret agent (we later learn his name is Jones) walking down the street in various edited shots and distances to the camera. We switch to a point of view shot of the character at one point, as he desperately scans the darkened windows of an old house as he makes his way to the phone box. What is he worried about? We’ll find out soon enough.

As he enters the phone box and lifts the receiver a snipers bullet is shot through his spine. We linger a while on his dead face before cutting to one of two scenes between George Sanders and Robert Helpmann, who play the lofty, aloof, upper class Whitehall warriors in charge of the government agency Quiller works for. These two scenes in the movie with these characters are almost superfluous other than to be used as a way of showing the difference between the men in control, playing their petty power games, and the foot soldiers in the field, like Quiller. When we first see Quiller it’s a shot of his back as he walks away from camera and straight on, centred between the two towers of the gates of a stadium where he first meets Alec Guiness, expertly playing Quiller’s director Pol.

Now here’s the thing about that opening sequence. The director makes you wait a long time for something to happen in the hopes that when the camera starts doing things like cutting away to shots of the windows, it’ll all stick later. I’m assuming this is because he hopes you will remember it near the end of the film, when George Segal goes through exactly the same thing and the same shots are used but with Quiller potentially in harm’s way. This is done to elicit a certain amount of suspense right at the start of a very interesting, ‘open tail’ sequence near the end of the movie... which is another thing you don’t usually see in these kinds of spy stories.

As the film goes one, various clever things are introduced such as the famous series of code phrases agents in the field can use to recognise each other. The ones in Quiller are based on cigarettes but it’s not the most efficient set of codes because, once the phrases are given, if you don’t smoke then the cigarette just gets thrown away... very curious to an onlooker and an easy way to blow one’s cover, I would have thought... but it’s also an effective way of getting the message across to the audience that this is a set of recognition codes, of course. The script cleverly uses this towards the end of the movie when Quiller loses three men who are tailing him but picks up another bunch. Uncertain as to whether they are his own people or the new Fourth Reich Nazi’s he has been instructed to find, Quiller uses the codes on one of them and, when the person refuses to respond or take his cigarette, his comment of “Non smokers” quickly tells the audience that he isn’t out of trouble yet.

Now this film is incredibly subtle and one of those subtleties is sometimes screwed up, or rather is inadvertently hidden, with the use of subtitles on some prints. I’ve seen two versions of this film, one with subtitles and one without and, thankfully for new comers to the movie, this new Blu Ray is the one where the few passages of German are left without subtitles. Why is that important? Well I’ll get to that in a couple of paragraphs... keep reading.

So Quiller asks his unwanted cover shadow, who he spots immediately and wants to get rid of because it hampers his style, if the opposition know he’s here yet. Hengel, his cover (played by Peter Carsten), replies that they don’t know he’s here yet... to which Quiller replies something along the lines that he’d better let them know he’s here. Now you don’t see this done that often in spy movies but it’s one of Quiller’s trademark M.Os in the books and he does it a fair few times. What better way of getting to meet up and identify your enemy than by making yourself stand out and walking into a trap? So Quiller starts going around various places where the last agent, the second killed on this mission and the one from the post opening title sequence, has been known to be hanging around. And at each of the venues, Quiller gives a slightly different cover story as to why he’s there... working for different firms etc. So anybody checking up on his movements enough to find the lack of synchronicity of those covers will raise the alarm. Quiller’s initial ‘research’ culminates in his meeting the leading lady of the picture, a school teacher called Inga, again played incredibly subtly by Senta Berger.

And right here is where I give you a spoiler warning... if you want to go in cold, skip past the next four paragraphs...

As Inga and Quiller get to know each other, it’s clear that she knows all about what he really is. If you listen to the early dialogue between the two, what may come across as a playful exploration leading to possible romance, is actually Inga trying to get a handle on Quiller and find out just what he knows about the underground network of Nazi’s she belongs to. What she doesn’t realise is... Quiller pretty much knows she knows and is leading her on with non-specific answers to the questions she asks him to arouse her interest in his ‘investigation’... leaving himself out like bait again. When Quiller leaves her apartment the first time, he realises he has at least one tail waiting for him out there, presumably the nazis he is investigating...

Now keep in mind that, as part of all his cover stories, he has feigned being a ‘dumb foreigner’ who doesn’t speak the German language... so he goes right up to one of his suspected tails and starts questioning him in perfect German. Now, if you’re watching a subtitled print of this especially, you might be concentrating on what he’s actually saying to the member of the opposition but... that’s really not the point. The thing to get here is... he’s told all the people he’s met that he doesn’t speak German... and here he is speaking it fluently. This is how he reveals quite clearly to the opposition that he is the one sent to investigate them. As soon as he starts questioning the guy, two more of his tails leap to his rescue and enter into the argument... and so, already, Quiller has flushed out three guys who he’s pretty sure are working for the enemy and also let them know they need to do something about him... but a  lot of people seem to miss this the first time they see this movie, from what I have heard from people talking about it.

There’s a lot of subtlety in the acting all through the film. George Segal might not be anybody’s perfect choice to play Quiller, if you’ve read the books, because he smiles a couple of times and comes across as a fairly warm character in a couple of scenes... which is not what Quiller is about. Quiller is ice. He doesn’t do smiling and emotional warmth... at least not on his employer’s time. However, if you study Segal closely in this, you’ll notice the incredible subtlety of his performance and you will see the warmth is actually a mask which the character is using as a means to an end. It’s all there in the performance, as indicated by the way he sometimes snaps from friendly into “ice-Quiller” mode with a quick change of expression. It’s all done very well.

In fact, all the actors and actresses in this movie are great, including, drum roll here please, the 37 year old Max Von Sydow, here playing the chief villain of the piece, Oktober. His two scenes with Quiller are excellent... one where he uses two kinds of truth serums to try and interrogate Quiller in an amazing question and answer session, each man trying to get their own result from the exchange... and a scene where Oktober uses Inga as a hostage to offer Quiller an ultimatum, not realising, as perhaps some of the audience still hasn’t twigged, that Quiller is fairly sure that she is part of his organisation. Actually, the fact that she is part of Oktober’s underground network is another thing that some audience members seem to be blissfully unaware of even after the film has finished because, being that it’s a Pinter script, it’s not all spelled out in the dialogue and it’s what’s said behind the words that are conveying the meaning in this movie.

End of spoiler zone one.

And all through this, John Barry’s incredible score is hitting all the right notes, chilling when it needs to be, which is most of the time, but not above providing an instrumental arrangement of the Petula Clark hit song Downtown and a really great vocal version of Wednesday’s Child written for The Quiller Memorandum and sung by Matt Monro, who had previously sung the famous end title song on Barry’s score to From Russia With Love. The use of the Wednesday’s Child theme with barrel organ instrumentation is a show stopper but it’s the subtle, taut underscore versions of the theme and the appropriate, low key stingers which keep you involved and which punctuate the incredible acting in this movie.

When it comes in at the end scene, the music spells out the final confirmation and recognition by Quiller about Inga and Oktober. It’s a great scene and again, Pinter does it in such a way that if you really are blissfully unaware of the subtext and want to take it at face value, it might seem like an “end of romance” farewell... but the scene is not about that at all.

Actually, before I go into this final scene of the movie, I’ll just put another Spoiler Warning here.... if you don’t want to know the end of the movie, go away and don’t read anymore... come back and read this when you’re done watching it already.

So Quiller has managed to lose all the people who are quite blatantly tailing him by tricking them into thinking their plan to kill him has worked. This enables him to return to base and report the whereabouts of the new Nazi headquarters to his people, who promptly round up all the Nazis there. Then, the next day, Quiller returns to the school. Now earlier in the film, before Inga was ‘captured’, Quiller gave her a phone number to call in case of emergency, if he didn’t come out of the headquarters after he left her. When he confronts her at the school, it is a farewell scene on the surface, but it’s clear both Quiller and Inga have a full measure of each other. Quiller asks how she got out from Oktober’s lair and she says, quite blatantly, that she was let go after he left her with Oktober. An obvious truth revealing the deceit behind it and one which Quiller lets slide... as he does all the revelations in this final coda of a scene.

Then it’s Inga’s turn to confirm her suspicions about how long Quiller knew she was the enemy. She questions him on the phone number he gave her and mentions that she tried it and it didn’t work. Quiller already knows this, of course, since he didn’t trust her with the real one and it was all part of the charade all along, so he makes up a shallow excuse to her now, which clearly doesn’t hold water... confirming her suspicions that he knew all along, after all. After this Quiller makes some rather pointed remarks about whether his organisation got all the Nazis and leaves her with a not too veiled threat which, although it is still written on the surface as two lovers parting, some people unbelievably still don’t get even though the expressions the two actors are giving in this scene tell the story loud and clear. He basically tells her that if he ever comes back to Berlin he’ll “look her up”. I think that says a lot right there... if he comes back he’ll start looking for neo-Nazis all over again. And then, he asks one more question, about his predecessor on the job, the one who was shot at the start of the film. “Have you ever heard of a man named Jones?” he asks. Inga is quick to respond with a negative, telling Quiller everything about her involvement, before she deliberately slows herself down and tries to embellish the lie with a more believable reaction. It’s too late, though... Quiller knows it was she who caught Jones in a honey trap and sent him to his death in exactly the same way she tried to set up Quiller. As she answers with that first no, John Barry’s score comes in, underlying the sting of the lie and continues as Quiller says goodbye and walks off, the score swelling into a full blown version of Wednesday's Child while Inga and her accomplice at the school are looking very concerned about the way things have gone. Will Quiller’s people be back very soon to pick them up?

End of spoiler zone two.

You know, that has got to be one of the most satisfying endings to a film ever. Like most of the scenes in this movie, it says one thing on the surface while actually meaning something completely different if you take the step to not take a hell of a lot at face value... and that might be a Pinterism for all I know, I’ve not experienced much of his work, to be honest. The film is not as technically brilliant in terms of mise-en-scene and editing as The IPCRESS File from the year before, but it certainly does have its moments in that department too and it more than makes up for it in other ways. If you go into The Quiller Memorandum without the attitude that you are there for a passive watch, it will pull you in and weave a magical spell of cold war, cat and mouse for you. You may even find that it’s possibly the greatest spy movie ever made and, certainly, I am upset but none too surprised that none of the other books made it to the screen as sequels to this one... the film was apparently nominated for three BAFTAs at the time but failed to win any of them. All I can say to that is that it must have faced some pretty awesome competition that year (not hard to believe from 1960s cinema) or it was very much misunderstood and underappreciated at the time... and that’s a real shame.

However, the new Blu Ray from Network is available now and, although the print still seems a little fadey in places, it’s certainly the best version of the movie that’s been put out to date and the extras on here of promotional items and interviews with some of the cast at the time the film was being made are worth a look, from a historical perspective. But, wether the extras are worth it to you or not, this is still one of the all time masterpieces of the spy genre, released right at the peak of the Cold War mania of the mid to late 1960s. If you’ve not seen this one, you really need to get on to that as soon as possible.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Doctor Who - The Ice Warriors




Ice To See You

Doctor Who - The Ice Warriors
UK Airdate 11th November - 16th December 1967
BBC Region 2

Okay, so this is a first time watch for me of the first Doctor Who serial to feature the title creatures of this story... The Ice Warriors. I was looking forward to seeing this one because Patrick Troughton is my favourite of the many incarnations of The Doctor throughout the show’s lengthy history and I don’t remember having ever seen this one before. The titular menace, however, are not exactly one of my favourite species of Doctor Who monsters, although they’ve always, since I was a kid, seemed to have been the third most popular monsters of the entire programme, coming in just behind the Cybermen and then the Daleks (although I suspect the Weeping Angels and the Silurians may be a little more popular than the Ice Warriors these days, since they’ve only appeared in the new incarnation of the show once, to date, in 2013).

For me, they’ve always been a bit of a clunky villain and, before they were brought out of cold storage for Matt Smith’s final season as The Doctor, they were really only used in stories opposite Troughton and Jon Pertwee, so they’re not the monsters they used to be in the 1960s and 70s... so to speak. Unfortunately, in this story, they’re exactly the monsters they used to be and... yeah, I’m still not that impressed by them as such... even if their leader is played by Bernard Bresslaw (well I only arrrrrsked).

Another thing which I wasn’t all that impressed with was the story on this one. There’s a nice idea that, in the far future, after the ice caps have risen and are about to claim the entire planet due to various problems, the Earth is split into two factions...Scientists, running the show and standing in for the last remnants of civilisation... and Scavengers, who have abandoned the treacherous ways of science, to an extent, because it was the scientists who got the Earth into this situation in the first place. However, in terms of the problems to be solved and how those final solutions are realised, it seemed to be a much more standard plot than a serial six episodes in length would have called for. It’s not that far off from an old 1950s Republic serial in terms of going back and forth between the same three or so sets trying to find new things to do, to tell you the truth. Add in a subplot taken directly from The Thing From Another World to introduce The Ice Warriors into the plot line and there you have it. So I was a bit disappointed in that aspect of the show, I have to admit.

However, that being said, the acting in this one is very strong. You have the usual regulars being Troughton’s Doctor, Frazer Hines’ reliable Jamie McCrimmon and Victoria Waterfield played by Deborah Watling. They are all very good, of course, but its some of the other actors in this, and what they bring to their characterisations, which makes this particular story worth watching. First of all you have a character called Penley, an ex-Scientist turned Scavenger, played by Peter Sallis as a relatively young man (that‘s Clegg from Last Of The Summer Wine and the voice of Wallace from Wallace And Gromit, to name a few things he’s known for), playing against type as the cleverest and most grounded of all the characters in the serial other than The Doctor himself. He takes control of a situation just when he needs to and is quite helpful at propelling the story, what little there is of it, along.

We also have Peter Barkworth as Clent, the leader of a group of Scientists trying to push back with technology against the ice. Now he’s very interesting because he kind of starts off as the human villain person of the piece, the guy every other rational human has to overcome to be able to do the right thing when it comes to saving the planet, but he is fleshed out so well that you actually begin to empathise with him. Because of the way Barkworth plays him, you totally understand where he’s coming from and it’s a fact that he’s written in such a way that he isn’t totally unreasonable and comes off more like a bad manager who learns a lesson and helps out when thrown a bone... as opposed to an out and out villain. This works really well and you feel, by the end of the sixth episode, that he has kind of redeemed himself a little. This is a well written character, well realised by the actor who portrays him and you’d be hard pushed to find better, these days, than the level of depth he brings to what is, lets face it, a token “sci-fi character of the month” role for the show. Really fantastic stuff.

It’s trying to be a bit of a romp of a serial, this one, but it’s dreadfully slowed down and made more sluggish in some respect by the Ice Warriors themselves... I was getting kind of tired of their ‘hissing’ speech patterns not long after they started. Since Vicky and Jamie are rarely in the same sequence in this one - Victoria spends most of the serial as a hostage and Jamie spends most of the time paralysed, unable to walk, after falling foul of an Ice Warrior weapon - there’s not much in the way of seeing how the two assistants get on with each other in terms of on screen chemistry. I still kind of prefer Zoe over Victoria, to be honest, but that might change when I see more of Vicky as a companion (I’ve not seen Enemy Of The World or reviewed The Web of Fear yet). I find it kinda strange that Vicky just gets sent to the TARDIS for most of the last episode (apparently she was unable to film that week) and also find it strange that their are some unusual continuity errors in this... given that they had a whole six episodes worth to address the issues. For instance, the TARDIS lands on its side but, when it takes off at the end, it has suddenly righted itself again. Similarly, Jamie has a lucky escape from death, as I mentioned before, courtesy of an Ice Warrior’s sonic gun but, after all the fuss, he’s walking around with no problems at all during the final episode with no apparent explanation as to his miracle recovery. So I wondered what had happened to the scripting there.

All in all, although The Ice Warriors is maybe not as fun as most of the Troughton stories I’ve seen, it’s certainly one of the best acted and it’s never quite too sluggish that you lose interest in it. Episodes Two and Three of the Six episode run are, unfortunately, missing presumed wiped, but the sound recordings do still exist... so the episodes have been animated to the original soundtrack. The animation is a bit over stylised/simplified and lacking in much movement (apart from the constant blinking of the characters, for some reason) but it’s watchable enough and certainly one of the better solutions they could have gone with to bring us the entire story... so it’s not too terrible. I’m sure most fans of Troughton will love this story but, it’s not a jumping on point for the Second Doctor if you’ve not seen any of his other, better serials, I would have to say.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Hands of the Ripper




Ripping The Velvet

Hands of the Ripper
UK 1971
Directed by Peter Sasdy
Hammer/Network 
Blu Ray Zone B

Okay. Now for some reason I have a strange block on Hands Of The Ripper, which turned up in the form of the new Network Blu Ray transfer at Christmas. The thing is, I can’t remember if I saw this as a kid or not. I saw a heck of a lot of Hammer movies on TV, from the age of around 7 years up to and around 14 years of age, when they were still shown regularly on British telly, and this movie certainly did ring a few bells at the back of my mind somewhere. I can’t say I honestly remembered anything specific about it though and, certainly, if it was something I watched on TV in the 1970s, then I suspect it would have been in a fairly censored version, if this uncut edition is anything to go by.

The film is directed by Peter Sasdy, who directed the first ever Hammer film I saw, Taste The Blood Of Dracula. This one is a strange concoction, though, and while it’s not something I enjoyed as much as the same director’s foray into the world of the popular vampire, it’s got a certain charm to it and the film isn’t wholly unremarkable... although it is a bit dull in places.

The film starts with the back story of one of the main characters, Anna, played throughout the rest of the movie by Angharad Rees but who is, in the opening sequence, depicted as a little girl in a cot. A man escapes an unruly mob by giving them the slip and returning to his wife and his daughter, the aforementioned Anna. He is, in fact, Jack the Ripper, and he murders the girl's mother in front of the daughter. The sequence continues as the opening credits play out with some rather dated and ultimately unpalatable freeze frames which stop the action whenever a new name appears from the cast or crew. Then we get into the movie proper...

It’s 15 years later and Dr. John Pritchard, played by Eric Porter, is accompanied by his son Michael, played by Keith Bell, as they attend a seance given by a character played by Dora Bryan. She has the grown up, teenage version of Anna representing “the spirit world” by talking as a ghostly contact through a grate in the wall and the illusion is easily seen through by the Pritchards, although one lady and her husband are besides themselves by the events they believe are transpiring before them. Once the party is over, so to speak, Michael Pritchard, who Keith Bell seems to be channeling the exact looks of Edgar Allan Poe for, takes a waiting cab to his stag do (he is getting married within the week) while Dr. Pritchard waits opposite the house with the seance for another carriage to come along.

Meanwhile, Dora Bryan’s character has taken money from a higher up member of parliament to have sex with young Anna. When Anna sees a shiny object, however, and is in close proximity (aka the “cuddle zone”) to someone who is getting a bit too intimate for her comfort, she goes into a trance and gets all stabby with people. Doctor Pritchard hears the screams and when he finds the stabbed to death Dora Bryan and the higher up official fleeing the scene of the crime, he seems to realise what is going on with Anna, to some extent... being as he is interested in the workings of the human mind and has been following the words and reputation of a certain Dr. Freud. So he springs her from jail the next day and asks her to live in his home... the same day that Michael’s fiancee Laura, played by Jane Merrow, comes to stay.

Now here on out it becomes a bit of a body count movie, with Doctor Pritchard constantly discovering Anna has just murdered somebody else and then having to dispose of each body and cover up for them as he can... including covering up for Anna too, who seems to have no idea or memory of what has happened once she’s gone into her trance.

The film is, it’s true, a predictable mess of clichés and, when we discover that Michael’s fiancee is also blind, we are just waiting for the scene to come when she is left alone with Anna and blindly trying to escape the... Hands Of The Ripper... so to speak. We seem to be waiting for certain scenes to appear throughout the movie for a lot of the time, it has to be said. It’s not a great film by any stretch but that certainly doesn’t stop director Sasdy from trying to be a little creative with his shot set ups and having fun with them and there are a number of instances of beautiful photography in the movie.

One of the director’s penchants, for example, is to sometimes have a vertical block splitting the screen just to the left of the centre of the shot. He even does this with people quite a few times and he’s certainly not afraid to have characters filling up the screen in mid-shot, creating the same off centre, vertical shapes as some of the other elements in the shots throughout the movie. Of course, this means he can then transcend to another shot and reflect these vertical blocks with something else in order to not jar the eye of the spectator as the sequences are cut together and this seems to work very well.

It doesn’t do anything to temper the general malaise created by Christopher Gunning’s somewhat less than typical Hammer score, though, which is not one of my favourite scores for the studio, to be sure. It somehow seems a little too subtle, almost, for the material and pacing that the director has created here. Perhaps, away from the confines of the film itself, it may be a little more robust and listenable but I don’t think it does the film too much good when pitched against the images, in all honesty.

Highlights of the movie would be the levels of goriness on display in this one, I guess. I don’t remember ever seeing a Hammer movie as bloody as this one and, though the scenes of violence are brief, they are effective and the old “Kensington gore” that the studio is known for gets a good work out here. The reveal on Dora Bryan’s character who the Doctor finds standing by a door, only to realise she has been affixed to it with a poker skewering her though her stomach as the door swings back into place with her still on it, is a nice little visual idea and the scenes where a “working girl”, played by none other than Open All Hours’ Lynda Baron, gets some knitting needles through her hand and into her eye ball as she tries to defend herself against the attack is another... if you’ll pardon the expression... eye opener in the movie.

Actually, Lynda Baron is one of the highlights of the movie for me and it’s great to see her as a younger woman in this, although the character she is playing, Long Lizzie Stride, makes no sense since Long Lizzie is one of the Ripper’s original victims (played by Susan Lynch in The Hughes Brothers go at the Ripper, From Hell, for example) and the film is clearly set 15 years after the original serial atrocities which have attracted so much interest in the intervening years. Indeed, anachronism seems to be a common feature in this film which seems to make mentions of the attitudes of Queen Victoria, even though she had clearly been dead for two years before this movie is set, the main body of which appears to take place in 1903.

Not a mistake, as such, but a disappointment, is the films climax taking place in the whispering gallery in St. Pauls cathedral... except you only seem to see one bit of fake looking wall and a shot down from a balcony which could have been filmed anywhere... which it turns out it was. The film’s producers had sought permission to film in St. Pauls, it transpires, but had been flatly refused, hence the ersatz nature of the clichéd but potentially effective finale. Which is a bit of a shame really because the film is quite watchable and nicely off kilter in certain places.

And off kilter might also be a good description of Eric Porter’s performance in this movie. He barely cracks a smile, playing the main male protagonist with a sense of someone with a void left in his heart. This lack of joyfulness of life is remarked on at one point by one of is housekeeperss and it seems to stem from whatever might have happened to his wife, who seems to be the only person not present in the family unit. Since he offers Anna one of his wife’s dresses, one can only assume that she met with a tragic end at some point before the opening of the movie, although I couldn’t detect any real reference throughout the film. I suspect there was either some footage cut or part of the script which explained the reasons behind Porter’s dour but effective performance left unfilmed and, therefore, not included in the final product. At least that’s my guess.

And there you have it. A movie which seems a bit of an odd fit in the Hammer filmography and, though not completely effective, certainly does have its moments and fans of the studio might well enjoy this one. The new Blu Ray transfer by Network is certainly a nice addition to the library, although I’m not 100% sure that some of the wispy cinematography is seen in its best in a high definition format, in all honesty. Still, definitely one to have if you want to spend some quality Hammer time with a movie which will probably slowly grow on you as the years go by. Not the best jumping on point for the studio’s thriller product and more as something which can be savoured and enjoyed once you’ve seen all their higher profile pictures. An acquired taste for the discerning fan, perhaps.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Under The Skin




Isserley Bothers

Under The Skin
by Michel Faber
CanonGate Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1782112112

Warning: Spoilers which could get under your skin if you let them.

Last year, when I reviewed the brilliant movie Under The Skin (read that one here) I stated that, after puzzling about certain aspects of the narrative in the movie, I wished I had actually read the novel by Michel Faber before going into that experience. Now, having read the novel, I can only echo that sentiment because, frankly, despite being a world apart from the very loose movie adaptation, there’s more of a problem, I feel, going from the movie to the novel than there possibly is the other way around.

Under The Skin is a beautiful movie and it’s a great book too. It joins, to my mind, some of the other great movie pseudo adaptations of the past that have been successful in their own right while being almost mutually exclusive from the subject material in the way in which the artists involved chose to change things. The other two I’m specifically thinking of right now are the Lynne Ramsey movie of Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar and Peter Webber’s version of Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl With A Pearl Earring (the latter also starred Scarlett Johansson as the main protagonist in the movie version, as does the filmed version of Under The Skin). Both Morvern Callar and Girl With A Pearl Earring were more successful, in some ways, in their adapted versions because in the film versions they both stripped down the content to something less dramatically ostentatious, choosing to leave out what some directors might see as specifically cinematic elements of their stories and instead  present their drama’s in an understated manner which, honestly, seemed to work out much better for their final product than I imagine it would have done if the writers and directors of the filmed versions had aimed their end product closer to the original works.

The movie version of Under The Skin also chooses to leave bits out and takes as many liberties, it seems to me, as it can get away with. In the movie version, Scarlett Johansson’s nameless protagonist picks men up in cars where she then traps them into a clearly sinister and deadly fate. We see she has an on-screen helper who is called when needed and we can see, by the end of the film, that she is alien to this planet. A humanoid wearing a “human suit” who comes to a particularly sticky fate. The same character in the book also comes to a sticky ending to her daily routine but things transpire in a much different manner and the attitudes of the character by the end are unchanged, in practice, to the person she has been all along... whereas in the film the pangs of sympathy she holds for the humans she has been... well... harvesting, take over and lead her along a different path.

In the book, she is called Isserley and she and her fellow aliens are, to them, the human beings. They all live together in a farm complex and Isserley picks up her prey exactly as she does in the movie... but then injects them into unconsciousness, when she is sure she is relatively safe in taking them, before driving them back to the barn for processing, fattening up and then, eventually, shipping them off to her home planet as an expensive delicacy.

She is a strong but sad character because she has chosen this lifestyle to avoid a worse fate on her home world and, because her species is, unlike the ‘vodsels’ (their name for what we would call humans), she has been surgically broken and mutilated from the horse like creature she is. Tail and udders removed, spine and limbs broken to become something like a vodsel form and with a large pair of breasts grafted on to her to attract male vodsels.

The book is pure science fiction but it’s a slow burn and thus my reason for saying that I’d have preferred not to have seen the film first. With the film, from trailers and marketing, you already know Scarlet is playing an alien predator. In the books, Michel Faber peels back the layers gradually so it takes you maybe a third of the way into the book before you have all the necessary information to put that premise together for yourself. Each time Isserley picks up a vodsel she questions him to find out if it’s a good risk to inject him with the mechanism built into the passenger seat of her modified car and, though not told in first person, the whole book is told from Isserley’s viewpoint only... other than a series of brief sections ranging from a couple of pages to, in one case, a single line, which tells you what is going through the vodsel’s mind when he is in conversation with Isserley. The pattern is repeated and gets a rhythm in the mind of the reader so that the lack of information with some of the potential victims can be used for dramatic intent... which is nice.

Like some of the best science fiction, Isserley’s viewpoint, which dictates the shape of the novel, comes from a place where we are slowly spoonfed the various contents of her ‘otherness’ in such a way that we can view her as something separate from a standard human being... or should I say separate her from a vodsel, to use her language. Faber really pushes the point home in a paragraph about halfway through the novel when Isserley is reflecting on the true intellect of the vodsels and how they are in any way different from the intelligence associated with her race... basically anything on our planet which doesn’t walk on all fours is seen by her people as a dumb animal which can be happily harvested for food. Faber uses sentences like this to show her viewpoint here...

“They couldn’t siuwill, they couldn’t mesnishti, 
they had no concept of slan.”

Faber deliberately makes use of nonsense words to help the vodsels who are reading his book identify with the victims and, through the readers confusion at this point, help establish the true alien nature of the central character. Okay, this tactic is a little clumsy in some ways because he only goes this extreme with the concept once in the book, for about a paragraph, unless I missed something... but it does get the point home when he needs to emphasise the attitudes of Isserley and her colleagues, who are included in the story as major characters also... unlike in the film where they are humanoid in form and almost, but not quite, non-existent in the visual presentation on screen. This, of course, places us in a position where we can understand the main theme Faber seems to be pushing, which would be a firm position on a vegetarian lifestyle in opposition to the slaughter of another species for food. Now I’m definitely a carnivore, for my sins, but I can appreciate the sentiment and argument and it seems to be the main treatise and underlying point of the novel. I guess it’s probably a very effective one if you’re already having thoughts about going in that general direction.

Under The Skin is, for the most part, a well written piece of literature which is miles apart from the movie version but, having seen the movie first and finding it an effective piece of cinematic art, I can’t honestly say either one detracts too much from enjoyment of the other. Certainly, if you have seen the film and want to explore, lets call it an alternative viewpoint, of the motivations of the main character, then you will probably get a rewarding experience from the book. Isserley is a much different person but she is not as hardened as her ultimate actions would make her appear and, like the movie version of the character to a certain extent (which is quite subtle and which you need to work at to piece together... and that’s as valid a way to present a movie as any other), she is a fully fleshed out and rounded individual with a lot of thought gone into her... probably much more so than the version of her written for Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal, now I reflect on it. Not an important work of science fiction, to be sure, but certainly an entertaining and, sometimes, thought provoking one which I would say is definitely worth picking up. Perhaps not a major work but certainly an enjoyable one.

For a review of Michel Faber’s book The Crimson Petal and The White, written by guest reviewer Sandy Hamilton, please take a look here... http://nuts4r2.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/crimson-petal-and-white.html

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Jupiter Ascending




Ascension Of Disbelief

Jupiter Ascending
2015  US
Directed by The Wachowski Sibs 
UK cinema release print.

You know, I so wanted to title this review Jupiter, Arse Ending, because I’d already been primed by the film’s promotional trailer, to expect one of the worst sci-fi films ever made. Seriously, just like Kingsman, The Secret Service (a film I reviewed here), the trailer for Jupiter Ascending did absolutely nothing to make me want to go and see this movie. The trailer's a mess of clunky dialogue and hollow, non-contextual special effects clips that actually put me off wanting to go for this one. And if I’d missed seeing this one at the cinema, I might never had gotten around to it because a trailer this bad... blimey! And that would have been a shame, as it turns out.

So why did I luck out and go and see it then? Simple. I heard that Sony Music they were releasing a double CD album of the film’s score by one of my favourite contemporary composers, Michael Giacchino. Now, Giacchino’s involvement alone would not have gotten me into the cinema and past that awful trailer, to be honest. What actually got me there was the fact that a double CD album meant that Sony were invested in releasing two discs of a score... so they must have had some faith in it. A score must be pretty special to get the two disc treatment these days and, since I’d already been to see what can only be the worst film I’ll see this year, and a lot of other years besides, Mortdecai (which I review here), I figured there was surely no way that Jupiter Ascending could be anywhere near as bad as that movie had turned out to be.

And so I went to the cinema last night to see, and hear, Jupiter Ascending for myself... and I was both delighted and disappointed by it.

Delighted because it’s, frankly, a damned good escapist, pulp sci-fi movie which is rarely pulled off as entertainingly as this one is and disappointed because, as I said in my opening line, now I don’t get to use my cool Jupiter, Arse Ending title for the review. Damn!

So why does the film work so well?

A friend of mine, Jason Pyke, had told me that it was a bit like Dune crossed with Brazil and that’s a pretty good little summation, I think... one which I’ll look at in more detail in a minute. It’s pretty much a film which covers all the bases and is influenced by a lot of science fiction and space opera over the years. A lot of the influences are not hard to pinpoint and there’s really no reason why this mess of a movie should hold together as well as it does... but it somehow seems to pull it all together and transcend the possible disasters that most postmodern amalgams fall prey to... and has fun doing it along the way.

Some of the things that really shouldn’t work are the clunky dialogue that actors and actresses like Mila Kunis (as the perfectly pulpily named Jupiter Jones), Channing Tatum, Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne are having to try to say whilst keeping a straight face. It’s seriously bad in some places but the performances, coupled with the way it’s edited, seem to make up for it in a way that the trailer, to be fair, couldn’t have possibly been able to hide. The always brilliant Eddie Redmayne (see my reviews of his films My Week With Marilyn and The Theory of Everything) is somewhat uncharacteristically over the top here... using a terrible ‘treacherous royalty’ kind of accent and a performance which should leave you laughing but... I honestly don’t know how he got away with it but it just about works here... strangely enough.

There are a few things, asides from the performances and awesome visual effects, that the film does have going for it. It really is not unlike the Dune books by Frank Herbert, although the ‘spice’ has been replaced, right up front, by a commodity which will have any sci-fi fan worth his or her salt quoting a certain famous Charlton Heston line from the movie Soylent Green. However, to offset the tone, the film seems to work with the same kind of methodology of a Roger Corman movie... but instead of a scene of gratuitous nudity inserted for every ten pages of script, you have an action sequence to offset any of the plot as it runs it’s course. So it’s very much... talk - action scene - talk - action scene - talk - action scene in the most transparent way but it works like the best examples of that kind of escapist product works, the same way an old Doc Savage novel or a good 1930s - 1950s theatrical serial might work. And it keeps you entertained.

Also, it’s noticeable that a lot of Joseph Campbell’s theories about ‘story and myth’, the ones that George Lucas was making such a fuss about a little while ago, are woven, almost by default, into the story and screenplay... so it works really well when you have ‘magical aids’ to the heroine’s “call to adventure” like antigravity boots and the control of bees thrown into the mix. It’s wild and hilarious at some levels but it moves so fast that you never get the time to be anything other than caught up in the story.

And, yes, you do have a sudden insert into the middle of the movie which is basically ten minutes of Franz Kafka as filtered by Terry Gilliam’s Brazil... which somehow fits right into things and is capped off with a lovely little cameo of a role played by Terry Gilliam himself. A nice little cherry on the cake for that scene and, like I said, this movie is not exactly quiet about its various influences.

Fans of British comics who are familiar with the famous, multi-part epic Judge Dredd story The Day The Law Died will also recognise a strangely winged variation of the terrifying Kleggs, although they are not actually called that here. Also, the arguably ‘real life’ aliens known world wide as The Greys are mixed into this intoxicating cocktail of a movie in a way which is both sinister and representative of their place and function in modern Urban Myth and UFO Folklore. In fact, after a bit of a clunky scene, it was these characters who really pulled me into the mythology of the movie and allowed me to "buy in" to what the Wachowski’s are trying to achieve here... which is, at the end of the day, a hugely entertaining pulp fest reminiscent, it’s true, of various 1950s sci-fi stories but with a lot of heart behind the spirit of the final product... and a lot of action too.

Now, while Jupiter Ascending is unlikely to be winning any awards, it does have a strong, central female protagonist and an underlying romantic story set to a background of upper echelon, royalty and politics... and a heck of a lot of punching, fighting, chasing and general mayhem exploding onto the screen at the drop of a hat. If you go and see this movie, love it or hate it, one thing you are not going to be is fed up with it.

Oh, and as for that Giacchino score I was so anxious to hear... fantastic. Operatic and action packed scoring which isn’t completely buried in the mix and will have you tapping your toes along with the galactic obliteration. It’s a great score for a great little, big budgeted B-movie. A B-movie which, impressively, transcends its short-comings, of which there are many, and polishes it up into a fast moving, entertaining thrill ride which is over way too quickly. Definitely a film that should find its audience, I think. And if you like pulp sci-fi adventure yarns, you should seek it out too.