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Posts Tagged ‘1950s’

You know that thing, when you meet a person and initially don’t get on, but after spending some time together and getting to know them, you actually become really close friends? That’s really what Motoyoshi Oda’s 1955 film Godzilla Raids Again (also known as Godzilla’s Counter-attack and Gigantis the Fire Monster) is about – well, it illustrates the first part of the process, anyway. (I make no apologies for reviewing two Godzilla movies in a row, by the way.)

I was discussing this topic (Godzilla movies, not the process of making a friend) with Anglo-Iranian Affairs the other day. We are talking about possibly going to see Godzilla: King of the Monsters (again, in my case), and he expressed the hope that it was better than the last Godzilla movie we saw together, which was Shin Gojira (aka Godzilla: Resurgence), a couple of summers ago. I have to say that the response to this movie from my colleagues was neither kind nor especially positive, with the googly-eyed incarnation of Godzilla from the start of the film and the long scenes of dysfunctional committee meetings drawing particular stick. My response was to make the point that Godzilla movies are kind of like a lens, through which you can look at different things and get different responses: Shin Gojira is obviously a seriously-intentioned film with things to say about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in an oblique way, very much in the tradition of the very first Godzilla, while King of the Monsters, though not entirely bereft of subtext, is much more of a fun monster mash.

So what kind of a movie is Godzilla Raids Again? Well, it was made relatively quickly following the massive success of the first film, and you can almost detect the producers wondering just exactly what they’re going to do to avoid a simple retread. The idea they eventually hit upon is one that has sustained the series for over sixty years since it was made, so the film has that in its favour – on the other hand, as is wont to happen in these cases, the idea as implemented here clearly still has a few wrinkles to be worked out.

The film opens with the introduction of its two protagonists, Kobayashi (Chiaki Minoru, guaranteed immortality as one of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) and Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi), who are both pilots working for a tuna canning company in Osaka. It’s business as usual for the lads until Kobayashi’s plane has engine trouble and he is forced to land near a desolate volcanic island. Tsukioka goes to rescue him, and both pilots are shocked by the appearance of Godzilla, locked in battle with another giant creature. (The film is very clear about the fact that this is a different Godzilla to that in the first film, the original being dead at the bottom of Tokyo bay.)

The pilots report this discovery, rather to the dismay of the authorities. Nobody worries too much about where the monsters have come from (‘atomic testing’ is the handwave used), the big issue is how to stop them. The second monster is identified as Angilas (or possibly Anguirus, depending on which version you’re watching), a mutated ankylosaurus, although judging from his contribution, the chap doing the identification appears to be one of those escaped lunatics you often find pretending to be paleontogists in this sort of film.

The authorities hold a big meeting to decide what to do to resolve this new Godzilla crisis, which is honoured by the appearance of another of the Seven Samurai – Takeshi Shimura, reprising his role from the first film and making his sole contribution to this one. After showing some clips from the original film, he basically gives a big shrug and says that with the Oxygen Destroyer no longer available, Godzilla is essentially unstoppable and Japan is completely screwed. All he can offer is the idea that Godzilla is especially annoyed by bright lights and can be lured away from populated areas by dropping a ‘light bomb’ (basically, flares).

Well, it’s better than nothing, and when Godzilla resurfaces heading for Osaka, the authorities go for it, ordering a blackout and the use of flares. One of the real weaknesses of this film is that Ishiro Honda and Akira Ifukube don’t return as director and composer, but the following sequence does have an impressively eerie quality to it, the lights descending around Godzilla as he wades across the bay. Unfortunately, a group of convicts take advantage of the chaos to break out of custody, and end up crashing their stolen van into a gas refinery (as inevitably happens in these situations). The resulting fireball far outshines the flares and soon Godzilla is stomping into Osaka, looking intent on breaking things – and the news gets worse, as Angilas is not far behind, looking for a fight…

Yes, the main reason to see Godzilla Raids Again is the city-flattening tussle between Godzilla and Angilas which ensues. By the time the series entered the 1970s, Angilas was quite well-established as one of Godzilla’s key allies, even a friend, but there is little to suggest that here: the fight takes a surprisingly grisly turn, as Godzilla tears out his opponent’s throat with his teeth before setting fire to the corpse with his nuclear breath. The main reason to watch it may be, but it’s still not necessarily a very good one – in subsequent films, the film-makers had figured out that to make suitamation fights more convincing, they had to overcrank the camera so the creatures appeared to be moving more slowly and ponderously. Here, they hadn’t worked that out yet, with the distracting result that the monsters appear to be moving much too quickly and jerkily.

I’m not going to say that the discerning viewer may as well switch off at this point, but I do think that the main problem with Godzilla Raids Again is that all the interesting stuff is in the first half. The film is weirdly structured and badly-paced, with the monster fight that should really be the climax occurring round about the mid-point of the film. Following this there is a long and far from scintillating digression into the lives of the tuna canning factory owner, his family and employees. The first film’s subtext is clearly about the experiences of Japan during the Second World War; if this one has a subtext, it’s that the emergence of giant atomic monsters really complicates the business of running a tuna canning company. Godzilla burns down the factory! They have to think about relocating the company to Hokkaido, where there are at least fewer monsters (heh, just wait until King Kong and Legion turn up). There is a school reunion and a fairly well-mannered stag party, of sorts.

From here we go into a climax which just about deserves the name, as it is extremely protracted and not exactly gripping stuff: Godzilla is tracked down to another remote island, which is repeatedly bombed until he is buried under ice cubes. It is notably short on tension, though sadly not on sentimentality – once again, a heroic self-sacrifice is required to put a stop to the marauding monster.

That’s really the main problem with Godzilla Raids Again: too often, it just feels like a limp retread of the original, surprisingly formulaic even though this is only the second film in the series (the scene where the armed forces turn up and shoot at the monsters a lot, to no effect, already has a formal, almost ritualistic feel to it). Nor does it have the same kind of intensity or fire in its belly – the monster rampage in the first film is shocking for the horrendous casualties it causes amongst the civilian population, but here it just seems to be spectacle – pow, there goes Osaka Castle! – with no-one worth worrying about dying.

The monster suits are good, and there are some genuinely impressive special effects shots at various points in the film, but it really does suffer from the poor structure of the script and the lack of a strong final act. Although this film was a financial success, you can almost understand why it was six years before they made a third Godzilla film. Monster wrestling was to prove the future of the franchise (that, and regular appearances by aliens from Planet X), but the main problem with this film is that it’s treated as filler for the story, rather than the main attraction. It was not a mistake the series ever made again; this is obviously an important film in the franchise, but you would struggle to call it a great or even a particularly good one.

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There are some films that just leave you agog, simply because it’s hard to credit that anyone ever thought they were a good idea on any level whatsoever. Bad execution is one thing, many an idea with potential has been scuppered by inept craftsmanship. But sometimes you come across a film that simply defies credulity, because there is simply no way that it was ever going to have any merit.

With Ray Kellogg’s The Killer Shrews, the clue is there in the title. Well, I’m not sure that ‘clue’ is quite the word I’m looking for, as that implies a lack of the glaring obviousness of impeding crapulousness that comes with a title that employs ‘Killer’ and ‘Shrews’ in such close proximity. Let us say they are not automatic or natural bedfellows, with ‘killer’ suggesting excitement, jeopardy, tension, and ‘shrew’ a tiny woodland creature of the kind that our cat used to bring in occasionally. I can appreciate that by the late 1950s, when The Killer Shrews was made, there had already been a number of films about homicidal wildlife, so the producers may have felt obliged to go beyond the usual suspects (snakes, rats, spiders, and so on). But even so. I suppose you can play a game where you try to think of a less appropriate animal than a shrew to headline a monster movie – The Killer Newts, maybe, or The Killer Sparrows. The Killer Marmosets. But The Killer Shrews does take some beating.

After the usual preliminary overwrought voice-over, we meet our hero for next seventy minutes or so, Captain Thorne Sherman of an un-named small ship. Sherman is played by James Best, a prolific actor perhaps best remembered for playing the useless Sheriff Rosco P Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard (in addition to that and The Killer Shrews, the charge sheet against Best should also record he was at one point Quentin Tarantino’s acting teacher). Here Best is all at sea, which would normally be the best place for a ship captain were it not for the fact that it is because he seems somewhat miscast and unable to decide how seriously to take the film. In the end he almost certainly takes the film too seriously, because it is impossible to treat a film like The Killer Shrews too frivolously.

Well, Sherman is delivering supplies to an unnamed remote island, assisted by the sole member of his crew, Rook Griswold (Judge Henry Dupree). We are instantly in problematic territory, and I don’t just say that because this is one of those films made on a very low budget where the dialogue was dubbed in afterwards, and not with a great deal of finesse. Griswold is fat and stupid and, regrettably, African-American; he calls Sherman ‘boss’ and is called ‘boy’ in return, despite the fact he is older. This is very incidental stuff – Griswold is a supporting character, only here to get eaten early on – but even so, it is a reminder that the 1950s had bigger problems than useless low-budget monster movies.

Sherman and Griswold arrive at their destination, aware there is a hurricane on the way. On the island, they happily contribute to the festival of bad dubbing and thick accents already in progress, with Best adding his good ole boy drawl and Dupree his ‘yassuh massah’ schtick to the Polish and Swedish brogues provided by main residents Baruch Lumet (a noted boffin) and his daughter (Ingrid Goude). Everyone on the island seems on edge, with Dr Cragis (Lumet’s character) insisting Sherman take his daughter Ann away with him, but the hurricane means they’ll all be there for a while yet.

Sherman gets invited back to the house where all the boffins and their servant (Alfred DeSoto, contributing his Mexican tones to the extraordinary panoply of accents already on display) reside. It turns out the scientists are at work on a scheme to solve the problem of overpopulation by making people really tiny and thus freeing up resources (it’s a bit like Downsizing, if Downsizing were more stupid and primitive), but Sherman senses there is something else going on. Sure enough, Ann reveals she has an inescapable feeling that something awful is going to happen. She is correct: they are going to make the rest of this movie.

Cragis eventually reveals that his experiments in controlling population have created a new breed of giant shrew with venomous saliva, and his assistant (and Ann’s sometime fiancé) Jerry (Ken Curtis) foolishly left the cage open. The mutant shrews have escaped and bred wildly, eating all the local wildlife, and anyone going outside the house after dark will now be on the menu. Given that Sherman has recently popped out to practise the art of smoking a swift cigarette in an impending hurricane, he takes this news pretty well.

However, Griswold has not been told this, and is therefore surprised to be set upon by the deadly beasts in question while about his ill-defined chores near the dock. Yes, Griswold’s time is up, although not before we get a good look at the titular beasts of The Killer Shrews. I think we have established that killer shrews are an unpromising premise for even the least ambitious B-movie, but I suppose it is just about possible that this movie could have functioned if the shrews themselves were put across well. Suffice to say, they are not. I have seen many films with dodgy monsters in them – Island of Terror instantly leaps to mind – but this is the first time the monsters have come on and I have been genuinely unsure if that’s actually supposed to be them. The budget of this movie clearly could not extend to trained giant mutant shrews, and so the roles of the shrews are played by – take a deep breath – dogs in shrew costumes. The shrew costumes are not even any good. The shrews are clearly dogs that have had bits of old carpet draped over them. The result is possibly the worst set of monsters in the history of cinema, and the effect is only compounded by close-up shots where the shrews are realised using a sort of sabre-toothed glove puppet.

At this point stupefaction sets in for any normal viewer, and the rest of the film unspools cheerily enough: everyone takes cover in the same set, economically enough, which the shrews then attempt to gnaw their way into. Much pleasure is to be derived from the performance of Gordon McLendon (who also produced the thing) as a doomed assistant boffin: McLendon decides to add a bit of oomph to his performance by dramatically taking off his glasses whenever he delivers a line. It feels like he does this every time he has dialogue. He does his line, gravely whipping off his specs as he does so, and the camera cuts to the reaction of Best, or whoever. Then when it cuts back to McLendon, he has put his glasses back on, ready to take them off again the next time he has to speak. This is nearly as mesmerising to watch as the dogs in their shrew outfits. It’s much less entertaining than the love triangle which has appeared ex nihilo between Sherman, Ann, and Jerry.

Well, I don’t want to spoil the film for you (actually, I’m not sure this film is susceptible to spoiling, given spoil means ‘make worse’), but all the people you would expect to get eaten by the shrews are eaten, and the survivors sail away happily enough. One thing about The Killer Shrews is that it is pretty bloody-mindedly rigorous in terms of theme – this may even have been written as a serious dramatisation of said theme, which is overpopulation. The scientists are here trying to solve it, and the plot resolves (inasmuch as it does) because the shrews have exhausted their food supply. ‘An excellent example of overpopulation,’ says Dr Cragis. ‘I’m not going to worry about overpopulation just yet,’ says Sherman, proceeding to get it on with Ann in her father’s presence. Given he just met her the day before and is apparently already contemplating having a large family with her, one has to wonder about this man, on many levels.

A couple of other facts about The Killer Shrews which may be of interest: this film made back ten times its budget (maybe it went down a storm in Sweden, I don’t know), which is more than most blockbusters do, and also – and here I really am left shaking my head – enjoys a 50% score on a well-known review aggregation website. I can only assume that these are based on the entertainment value of the film as an unintended comedy; this is considerable, to say the least. It is literally impossible to take seriously, and you honestly have to wonder if anyone ever thought that it might be.

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You’d think that you knew where you were with a film luxuriating in the (frankly brilliant) title Devil Girl from Mars: the details practically fill themselves in, after all. We are dealing with a product of the 1950s, low-budget, most likely dreadful (in an entertaining sort of way), an American B-picture. And you would be right in all respects but one.

David MacDonald’s film opens with stock footage of a plane flying peacefully on its way – but it then abruptly (and rather unconvincingly) explodes, plunging us into the title sequence and the startling revelation that there are some fairly well-known names in this film – not just Hazel Court, whose finest big screen moment may well have been The Masque of the Red Death, but also John Laurie, whose immortality is assured not, as you might expect, by his appearances in classic films like The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but by the years at the end of his career spent playing Fraser the undertaker in Dad’s Army. What is this quintessential Scotsman doing in a sci-fi B movie?

Soon the question becomes one of ‘what’s a sci-fi B-movie doing in Scotland?’ for it rapidly becomes clear that this film will be almost exclusively set in and around a remote Scottish pub, which is operated by John Laurie and his wife. Various other characters turn up: their barmaid (Adrienne Corri), who hails from down south and is here for somewhat mysterious reasons, a renowned astronomer turns up accompanied by a journalist, drawn by a report of a meteorite falling somewhere in the vicinity, and so on. There is also a fashion model (Court) on the run from a failed liaison, and an escaped convict who is literally on the run from the police.

Confirmation of the special quality of this film comes when the barmaid greets the escaped convict, for he is the (somewhat wrongfully imprisoned) man she loves. The guy’s name is apparently Robert Justin, but, he says, he has decided to change his name to Albert Simpson to conceal his identity. Corri’s character doesn’t bat an eyelid and proceeds to call him Albert for the rest of the film without making any further comment.

Things proceed in this sort of slightly demented manner for a while, creating a sort of Grand Hotel ambience of stewing subplots (only with more of a neeps and tatties flavour to it). But then everyone is astonished by the landing, in the pub garden, of one of your genuine flying saucers! From within it emerges Nyah (Patricia Laffan), an imperious interplanetary dominatrix whose costume inevitably puts one in mind of plumbing supplies.

Nyah informs the assembled company that they are cut off from the outside world (which if nothing else helps to keep the budget down). Mars, apparently, is short of red-blooded males and she has come to take a few off there to help re-populate this dying planet. Having dropped this bombshell she goes back into the flying saucer so everyone else can think about it and talk about what to do next.

It becomes apparent fairly quickly that this is Nyah’s preferred modus operandi: she occasionally comes out of her flying saucer to perform some shocking (but still economical) demonstration of her satanic space technology, then goes back in again to allow everyone else to react. Eventually, however, the stubborn resistance of the humans proves to be too much for her to tolerate, and she unleashes her robot, which is likely to prove too much for many audiences to tolerate. It basically looks like a fridge on legs, staggering about very, very slowly, and pausing only to unleash its death ray on various bits of the local countryside.

The clued-up viewer will rapidly come to two conclusions, based on this sequence: firstly, this whole movie is inspired, if that’s the right word, by The Day the Earth Stood Still (alien visitor and robot companion cause a commotion), and secondly, some parts of this film are surprisingly good, relative to how utterly awful the worst elements of it turn out to be. The actual death ray stuff is rather well executed, though very similar to similar effects in The Day the Earth Stood Still and The War of the Worlds; some of the shots of the flying saucer are also quite acceptable.

That said, most of the stuff in this movie which is not openly ridiculous comes from the homespun British drama side of the mash-up, rather than the flying saucer sci-fi aspect. The sets and props of the pub are fine, if hardly ground-breaking; most of the subplots are the stuff of programme-filling potboilers, with people in fraught romantic relationships – melodrama, really, but the UK made hundreds of now-forgotten films about this kind of thing back when our film industry was more substantial. The melodramatic aspect of the subplots is really no better and no worse than that of many other films of this period. Apart from how corny the plot is, the real revelation is just how parochial the film feels – at one point the convict and his girlfriend are discussing his possible future, and the prospect of his fleeing the country comes up. ‘You don’t need a passport for Ireland!’ he says, in a sudden moment of inspiration. For a film that deals with cosmic ideas, the horizons of this film are often very close at hand.

In the end this is really not very good science fiction – the palest shadow of The Day the Earth Stood Still, certainly – there’s no concerted attempt to bring any kind of depth or allegorical content to it. Klaatu in the more famous film is clearly intended as an analogue for Christ; Nyah, in this one, never feels like she’s much more than a woman in a vinyl costume and a shower curtain. It’s sci-fi as spectacle, bereft of intellectual content – if I was feeling particularly nasty, I would mention that the sound recordist on this film was one ‘Gerald Anderson’, later to go on to make many much-loved sci-fi TV shows that look fantastic but are seldom noted for the brilliance of their scripts.

Devil Girl from Mars isn’t even as innocently enjoyable as most of the Anderson shows: but entertaining it is, if you enjoy bad movies which unashamedly display not just their own limitations but also their own weirdness. Much of it is bad, but parts of it are very funny indeed: a good enough deal for me, and probably for many others too.

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I am given to understand that there were some grumbles that the TV schedule for the festive season just past was in some way sub-standard, with rather fewer ‘treats’ than people have become used to. It may not come as a surprise if I reveal that I am not the kind of person to be particularly stimulated by Christmas specials of Call the Midwife, Strictly Come Dancing or (God help us) Michael MacIntyre’s Big Show, and lavish all-star Christie adaptations don’t really do it for me either. However, on reflection, I must admit to a little surprise and mild disappointment, for at one point all the signs were that one of the BBC’s Christmas offerings was going to be a new adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

Now, when I think about it, I’m actually quietly certain that this thing is going to be a disappointment to me whenever it actually appears, because the BBC, which is usually pretty faithful when it comes to bringing Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope to the screen, has historically shown no such fidelity when it comes to classic genre fiction – see, for instance, the atrocious version of The Day of the Triffids they inflicted on the world at Christmas 2009. But such is my fondness for The War of the Worlds that I will stay optimistic until it actually arrives.

I should make this clear – The War of the Worlds, the novel? Love it. The radio version? Love it. The concept album? Love it. Stephen Baxter’s authorised sequel? Love it. The Spielberg movie? I can appreciate its merits. The 1980s TV show – well, now, let’s be sensible. I watched pretty much the whole first season, which many would say was going above and beyond the call of duty. One of the (many) problems with the War of the Worlds TV show is that it’s operating two steps removed from H.G. Wells, in that it is basically a small-screen sequel to the 1953 movie produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin. You will not be terribly surprised to learn that I really like this movie, too, even though it has an extremely liberal attitude towards the source novel.

After a slightly frantic set of credits, the film gets underway, as any self-respecting iteration of The War of the Worlds must, with the famous ‘No-one would have believed…’ passage from the book, updated to reflect the film’s 1950s setting. Through the wonders of gorgeous special effects and rather dubious astronomical exposition, we learn that the planet Mars is dying, and its inhabitants have only one option when it comes to migrating to another planet – it’s Earth or bust!

Everyone on Earth is oblivious to this, of course, even after what seems to be a rather unusual meteorite lands in the California hills. The locals are delighted, thinking that their ship has come in and a new tourist attraction has arrived, but rugged scientist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is less convinced – the new arrival seems to be radioactive, and didn’t behave like a normal meteorite. He goes off to the local square dance with impressively-banged local girl Sylvia (Ann Robinson – not that one) to pass the time while the rock cools down.

Needless to say, the town is in for a surprise, for the meteorite unscrews and a death ray on a stalk proceeds to obliterate the locals left to keep an eye on it, while a powerful magnetic field knocks out the town’s electricity. The army is called in, with a view to containing the Martian invaders – for other Martian cylinders have begun landing all over the world, with reports of chaos and destruction filtering through – and the kindly local priest makes a brave attempt to establish peaceful contact with the aliens. Naturally, the Martians smoke him. The US military aren’t about to let this sort of behaviour carry on unchecked, and unleash their might at the alien war machines, only to find them impervious to earthly weapons. The authorities are forced into a desperate, futile rear-guard action as the Martians expand their terrestrial dominion, and all seems hopeless for the human race…

My general feeling about both The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine are that they are foundation stones of science fiction, but also books which are now sort of dated: both of them are driven by social and philosophical concerns and are indeed essentially topical satire – of the British class system, in the case of The Time Machine, and the British empire with The War of the Worlds. Unsurprisingly, the satirical and allegorical element of the novel does not survive into the film, which is instead almost as pure a piece of Red Scare thrill-mongering as you can find. It is telling that, for all the indications that this is a global catastrophe (we are shown the Eiffel Tower toppling, and Martian war machines in front of a ruined Taj Mahal), there is not one mention of the Martians attacking the Soviet Union, or indeed that the USSR even exists. Wells’ concerns have been extracted and replaced by those of 1950s Hollywood.

I could easily fill the rest of this piece by cataloguing all the other numerous and comprehensive differences between the original novel and this adaptation: most obviously, there is the shift in setting, from southern England in the early 20th century to California in the 1950s, and there’s also the fact that the Martians in this movie cruise around in sleek manta-ray hovercraft, rather than the iconic tripedal fighting machines of the book. It’s really the case that virtually none of the specifics of the novel’s plot survive into the film, which concerns itself almost exclusively with the first half of the book.

This concerns the initial Martian landings, their crushing of the forces sent against them, and the panic and chaos that convulses human society. Other than the conclusion, the second half of the novel – which deals with the Martian occupation of England, and goes into slightly more detail about their nature and technology – is entirely absent. This is no doubt partly due to the technical limitations of the period – it’s hard to imagine how the special effects of the 1950s could have rendered the spread of the red weed, for instance – but Wells’ more philosophical musings are not really the stuff of an American sci-fi movie, while in another key respect the film is entirely at odds with Wells’ conception.

Whether you consider the end of The War of the Worlds to be an outrageous deus ex machina or a subtly-foreshadowed denouement entirely of a piece with the rest of the book is probably a matter of personal taste, but it survives in the movie more-or-less intact. However, Wells intent has been comprehensively subverted, in another fundamental change. Wells’ atheism is discarded, and – like many classic SF movies from this period – the themes of the film are presented in almost spiritual terms. People take refuge in churches; there are many references to prayer and miracles; when one boffin gravely announces the Martians will conquer the world in six days, Ann Robinson reminds us all that this was the same length of time it took to create it. In short, the film is basically reminding the audience that technological superiority is all very well, but victory only comes by the grace of God – the death of the Martians here isn’t simply a matter of biological process, but presented as divine intervention. The end of the film, with church bells tolling and a grateful population flocking to give thanks, appears to have been an influence on at least two other films – the film version of Day of the Triffids, and the British catastrophe movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

It seems, therefore, that very little of the actual substance of the novel survives into this adaptation. Why, then, am I so fond of it? Well, quite apart from the fact it often has a kind of hokey charm unique to itself, it’s also the case that while the film changes virtually every detail of the book, it captures its tone and spirit with an accuracy which is hugely impressive. The Martian onslaught against the US army, death rays slashing in all directions as the human guns fail to hit their targets, is absolutely of a piece with the novel; the eerie scenes with Forrester and Sylvia trapped in a ruined house, Martians all around them, are also closely inspired by the similar section in the book. The climactic sequence depicting the breakdown of law and order and near-rioting in the streets as the Martians advance on downtown Los Angeles also catch the essence of Wells’ description of ‘the rout of civilisation… the massacre of mankind’ extraordinarily well, in the circumstances.

In the end I’m almost moved to describe the movie of The War of the Worlds not so much as an adaptation as a cover version – it retains only the most basic outline of Wells’ book, changing virtually every detail of narrative and theme. And yet it also seems to have locked onto the most vivid and powerful segments of the story and retained them, in terms of their emotional impact and effectiveness. It’s a fairly irregular way to go about adapting a book, but the result is a movie that still somehow does credit to the source material. Not many adaptations of classic SF novels stand up as well as this one.

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I used to be a fairly regular participant in the great British tradition of the pub quiz, back before the institution was effectively killed off by the rise of the smartphone and hand-held search engines. One of the methods by which the proprietors of these events tried to limit people’s ability to cheat was by introducing things like music and picture rounds, where you couldn’t just google for the answers. There was usually an interesting mixture of difficulties on display.

I recall on one occasion being heads-down with the rest of the team poring over some of the more challenging pictures we were being asked to identify: 1970s football managers, obscure cousins to the queen, and so on. And there was one photo of a middle-aged man in a shapeless hat and a raincoat, smoking a pipe, with a rather peculiar expression on his face.

‘Is that Eric Morecambe without his glasses?’ wondered one of the team, aloud.

‘No it’s not. Maybe it’s Harold Wilson,’ said another, prompting an instinctive and visceral hiss from the members of the team who also belonged to the local Conservative Club (one can’t always freely pick one’s pub quiz team-mates).

Something was stirring in the back of my brain, as the machinery back there (which I have given up trying to understand) quivered and buzzed and finally coughed up an answer.

‘I… I think that’s Jacques Tati,’ I said.

They stared at me a lot, torn between lack of comprehension at what I was on about and bemusement that I actually appeared to know the answer. For myself, I was astonished that a picture of a French comedian from the middle of the last century had turned up in a pub quiz picture round in the north-west of England, and also that I was able to recognise him despite never actually having seen one of his films.

I mean, come on, it’s French comedy: our cousins across the channel are famous for their wine, their cuisine, their sense of style, and the sense of humility which they take with them whenever they travel abroad, but French comedy is (generally speaking) down the list beneath their pop music when it comes to les grandes realisations de la France.

Then again, there are exceptions to everything, and if there is a French comedian with a claim to international recognition it is Jacques Tati, acclaimed as one of the greatest auteurs and film directors of all time by people who should actually know about that sort of thing.

Well, as I say, I’d heard of Tati (and clearly seen a picture of him at some point), but had never seen one of his movies until recently when a stack of films passed on to me by a friend happened to include Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle (even I, who didn’t even take GCSE French, can figure out that this means My Uncle).

monocle

With a title like that it sounds like some sort of sentimental, family-themed romp, but (and to be honest you had best get used to this) Mon Oncle defies – or, perhaps, ignores – expectations. Tati plays his most famous creation, Monsieur Hulot, a carefree, easy-going gentleman of middle years, residing in a chaotic Parisian neighbourhood at the top of a ramshackle apartment block.

This is quite at odds with the lifestyle of his sister (Adrienne Servantie), who along with her husband Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) has relocated to an ultra-modern home in the suburbs, with all kinds of modern fixtures and conveniences. Despite all of this, their son (Alain Becourt) seems much happier spending time with his uncle, Hulot. This is a source of much chagrin to the Arpels, who view Hulot as a feckless embarrassment and seemingly spend most of their time trying to get him to adopt a more ‘appropriate’ lifestyle – working in Arpel’s factory, and so on.

There is, it must be said, not much more in the way of plot when it comes to Mon Oncle, mainly just a succession of set-pieces which usually depict Monsieur Hulot unintentionally wreaking havoc upon the ordered existence and plans of the Arpels. Your sympathies are intended to be with Hulot throughout, not because he is a particularly engaging or identifiable figure, but because the lifestyle of the Arpels is depicted as phoney and dehumanised: their home is a sterile environment depicted in a palette of dull greys, the most distinctive feature a fairly ugly fountain (which Mme Arpel hurries to switch on whenever they receive an important guest).

This extends to the film’s view of the factory and the consumerist lifestyle which the Arpels have enthusiastically adopted: rows of grey cars trundling in perfect unison between grey boxes. The contrast with the slightly shambolic, but always warm and vibrant neighbourhood in which Hulot resides could not be much more clear. Points are obviously being made, and there’s a certain sense in which Mon Oncle would be a good double-bill companion piece to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for they are both obviously very seriously-intentioned satires of consumerism – indeed, Mon Oncle occasionally seems almost reactionary in its suspicion of modern technology.

Satire isn’t an exact synonym for comedy, of course, which I suppose is my way of delicately raising the issue of whether this famous comedy film is actually funny or not. I suppose it is, but this feels like the kind of comedy which is meant to be taken very seriously – in other words, it is Art. As you admire the conception, composition, art direction and performances of each scene, it almost seems disrespectful to laugh at the film: an approving, serious nod feels like a much more appropriate response.

It’s not really the style of comedy you expect, either. Monsieur Hulot is clearly part of a tradition of clowning which – in cinematic terms at least – goes back at least to Chaplin’s Tramp and continues on to characters like Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson has acknowledged Tati’s influence on his work). But the difference is that with the Tramp or Bean, you are always watching a star vehicle – they are always centre stage, the comedy built around them. In Mon Oncle, on the other hand, many of the scenes are filmed in long shot, with Hulot just one figure in a crowd of other characters (if he is present at all). He is a major character, but the film does not revolve solely around him.

I should probably also observe that there is an abrasive element to Anglophone clowning which seems to be almost entirely absent here. There is a lot less falling-over, slapstick, and comic violence than you might expect – there’s a fairly lengthy sequence about an automatic garage door opening mechanism which eventually causes the Arpels a lot of trouble after their dachshund starts to accidentally trigger the mechanism. I was anticipating the moment where someone either gets hit by the door or entangled in the works and whisked out of sight; it never happens and it almost feels like a scene without a pay-off. There are many other almost-throwaway moments of visual inspiration.

So I have to conclude that while Mon Oncle is clearly a well-made film and the product of a distinct creative sensibility, it didn’t actually make me laugh very much. Then again, it seems to be a film about ideas and the changes in French society in the late 1950s at least as much as it is a comedy; the conclusion (Hulot is banished to the provinces to become a sales rep) seemed to me to be genuinely affecting and rather sad. Still, an interesting film, though definitely the product of a rather different comedic tradition.

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As this long, hellish, The Day the Earth Caught Fire-esque summer has worn on, so the Kubrick season at the Phoenix has come to a conclusion, which is obviously cause for sadness. But looking on the bright side, in its place we are currently enjoying a season of Hitchcock revivals, which is always something to relish. Most recently on the screen was a movie from the start of the 1950s, the decade which arguably saw Hitchcock at the height of his powers and brought him his most sustained run of popular and critical successes. The film in question is Strangers on a Train, one of the great director’s most playfully ambiguous works. Is it a psychological thriller? A film noir? A pitch-black comedy? Or just a searing indictment of poor health and safety standards at American funfairs? Nearly seventy years on, the jury is still out.

Farley Granger plays Guy Haines, an amateur tennis player and aspiring politician, who is making a fairly routine train journey when – apparently by chance – he makes the acquaintance of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a wealthy, charming fellow who seems to be a fan of his. Somewhat reluctantly, Guy gets to know Bruno better, and it transpires that both men have their problems: Guy is stuck in a marriage to an unfaithful wife (Laura Elliott), while Bruno finds himself oppressed by his authoritarian father. Bruno takes the opportunity to unveil his ‘perfect murder’ scheme, whereby he will kill Guy’s wife, while Guy disposes of Bruno’s father – as each man apparently lacks a motive for these particular killings, they should get away with it, with no difficulty.

Guy is clearly just too well brought-up, for his attempts to extricate himself from the company of someone who is clearly slightly unhinged only serve to give Bruno the impression that he is enthusiastically on-board with this ‘criss-cross’ plan. Matters become somewhat more complicated when Guy’s wife proves to be not just unfaithful but rather manipulative, soaking him for money while refusing to give him a divorce, even though she is carrying another man’s child (hey, it was the Fifties). All this causes Guy to make some rather intemperate public utterances, which could well be seen as incriminating when his wife turns up dead in the middle of a funfair one night – Bruno has gone full speed ahead with his murder-swapping plan…

Guy is safe for the time being, but one piece of evidence away from being arrested (his alibi just isn’t quite watertight enough). This would be stressful enough, even without Bruno starting to haunt his footsteps, wondering why Guy is so reluctant to follow through on his side of the deal, and clearly quite capable of making Guy’s life extremely difficult if he reneges entirely…

Strangers on a Train is not quite at the very top of the list of Hitchcock movies everyone can name – it’s a step or two down from Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo, for instance – but it is still immediately recognisable as a product of the same creative sensibility. From the very first seconds you are aware of the playful way in which the director is presenting the two leads as doubles, or opposites – their arrival at the station opens the film, with Hitchcock choosing to show us their feet rather than their faces, saving this for the moment when they first see each other. There is also the same kind of moral ambiguity that shoots through so many later Hitchcock films – it’s made clear that Guy really does want to murder his wife, it’s only the social contract which is keeping this urge in check. There’s a sense in which Guy is a bad, er, guy.

In the same way, there’s a sense in which Bruno is, if not a good guy, then at least a charming, appealing presence whenever he appears. This is mostly due to a terrific performance from Robert Walker, whose final completed film this was: Walker pretty much walks away with the acting honours from Strangers on a Train, as the good guys are decent but wooden, and his only real competition (Elliott) is only in the film briefly. Elliott manages to be so objectionable that the set piece in which Walker stalks her through a funfair before eventually strangling her – the murder famously reflected in her fallen glasses – is essentially one in which the audience is complicit with the killer, or at least feeling no guilt at anticipating the murder.

Of course, there’s something else going on in this film, a subtext which is surprisingly clear given the time it was made. Guy is dashing but weak, led into immorality by a charming older man with a mother-fixation. The coding is quite obvious – Bruno is presented as a thinly-veiled predatory homosexual, aiming to seduce Guy – morally, if not physically. Robert Walker’s performance is very good, but it’s also kind of Liberace meets the Boston Strangler. Suffice to say that the love of a good woman (Ruth Roman) is essential to Guy’s clearing his name and resolving the crisis.

As the film goes on, it progressively deviates, if you’ll pardon the expression, from Patricia Highsmith’s original novel, which (to minimise spoilers) concludes with Guy being arrested, and this may be why the initially watertight plotting of the film begins to unravel somewhat. There’s something a little melodramatic, or at least rather improbable, about the way the climax is managed – Guy has to win his tennis match in double time, lose his police tail and then get to the scene of the crime before Bruno can plant the evidence that will see him arrested. You could poke half a dozen holes in the scenario, yet it is still thoroughly engaging, enjoyable stuff, and you do get the sense Hitchcock is having fun, not intending the audience to take it too seriously either . There are quite a few moments during the climax of the film which drew general laughter from the audience at my screening, and I’m sure some of this was intended. But all of it? I’m really not sure; Hitchcock remains as slippery a magician as ever.

Possibly if this film were in colour, or had a more distinguished cast, it would perhaps have a slightly higher profile. Nevertheless, it is still a supremely accomplished movie – the plot holds together well enough, there is plenty of snappy dialogue to enjoy (‘I may be old-fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law’, ‘When an alibi is full of bourbon, it can’t stand up’, and so on), and the story has just enough darkness and ambiguity to it to deliver a pleasant frisson, rather than becoming too bleak or downbeat. A very fine film, and still only one of Hitchcock’s relatively minor works.

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It seems that, in the UK at least, Swedish culture is enjoying a moment in the sun right now: not only is a new series of the brilliant thriller The Bridge imminent, but there was also the recent news that melancholic power-pop royalty Abba have been back in the studio after 35 years, which may or may not have something to do with the imminent release of the sequel to Mamma Mia!. (Although I have to say that none of my Swedish friends actually seem to like Abba. This may be why they don’t actually live in Sweden any more, now I think on it.) Adding to this general sense of festen is a series of films celebrating the career of one of Sweden’s most renowned directors, Ingmar Bergman.

Most of these have been on at funny times or have clashed with meetings of my Dungeons and Dragons group (oh yes, I live the life), but I was able to make a showing of Bergman’s celebrated 1957 film Smultronstället, better known by its English title Wild Strawberries, and apparently known specifically to the ticketeer at Oxford’s Ultimate Picture Palace as Old Dude on a Road Trip – one wonders how he refers to The Seventh Seal (ticketeer in question also welcomed me into the cinema with a hearty cry of ‘It’s Bergman time!!!’).

Well, quibble one might, but Old Dude on a Road Trip is a fairly accurate description of Wild Strawberries, from a certain point of view at least. The story concerns Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), an elderly doctor about to celebrate fifty years in the profession. A ceremony in his honour has been laid on at his alma mater in Lund, and all the plans for his trip down from Stockholm have been made. However, as the ceremony draws close, Borg finds himself beset by unsettling dreams and decides to do something a bit different. Much to the displeasure of his housekeeper, he decides to drive down to Lund. Along for the ride is his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin, whom I suspect is everyone’s idea of what a Swedish movie star looks like).

They pause along the way at Borg’s old family home, and he finds himself lost in a reverie as he remembers – or fantasises about – his youth and cousins. The stop also results in Borg and Marianne picking up some hitch-hikers, who are practically beatniks by the standards of 1950s Sweden (they are still incredibly wholesome and well-mannered for the most part). Further stops along the way prompt the professor to reconsider his principles and the course his life has taken; some curious characters are encountered along the way. (The appearance of one of these, a petrol attendant played by Max von Sydow, was greeted with an audible sigh of appreciation by at least part of the audience, presumably because it was a relief, amongst all the subtitled Swedish and discussions of metaphysics, to see someone out of The Force Wakes Up.)

Well, I hope it doesn’t constitute a spoiler if I say that by the end of the film Professor Borg has come to a new and deeper understanding of himself and the course of his life, although quite how this has come to pass remains slightly obscure. The whole story is executed with an almost absurd lightness of touch, completely devoid of the big, histrionic Moments of Character Transformation you will likely find in an Anglophone treatment of a story of this kind. The initial dream sequence sums this up: nothing overtly unusual or disturbing occurs at first, but there is a tiny incremental accumulation of sound and image until suddenly you find yourself deeply unsettled by what is on the screen. Nothing much seems to be happening: but you do get the sense that Bergman is working the script and the screen for all they are worth in every moment of the film.

This may explain why Sjöström, who at first glance spends much of the film wandering about looking distracted, apparently found it such a gruelling experience that he was on occasion to be found beating his head against the wall between takes. Certainly the actor gives a brilliant, terrifically understated performance as the initially stubborn and misanthropic old man; you never notice him acting. He is also notably well-supported by Thulin, Bibi Andersson, and Gunnar Sjöberg.

Andersson and Sjöberg both play dual roles as the film progresses – one in the ‘reality’ of the story and the other in the fantasies which come increasingly to preoccupy Borg. There’s some symbolism going on here with the doubling: Andersson is playing Borg’s first love, who eventually forsakes him for his brother, and also a young hitch-hiker of whom he becomes perhaps just a bit too fond (both characters have the same name). Sjöberg, on the other hand, plays darker, more downbeat figures, symbols not of love but of cynicism and failure. It is he who presides over another disquieting dream sequence in which Borg must endure a nightmarish, unfair examination: watching the ominous mood Bergman evokes here you are definitely reminded that this is the man who eventually inspired Wes Craven to make Last House on the Left.

But what does it all mean? Life, death, age, youth, guilt, sin, acceptance, denial, they are all in the mix which Bergman so deftly whips up. There is a touch of existential misery as the film goes on, but also perhaps some self-aware humour as well: at one point a debate over the existence or otherwise of God is resolved by a fistfight in a pub car park. One of the most obvious of Bergman’s disciples in English-language cinema is Woody Allen, and being rather more familiar with Allen’s canon than Bergman’s there are many weird pre-echoes here, in the bold internalism of this film, in the wise old man’s fascination with a much younger woman, in the sense that while nothing much seems to be happening, in fact everything is happening. In the end, though, while you could never call this film a comedy, it resolves itself with an enormous sense of compassion and warmth towards its characters – Borg is perhaps not quite redeemed, but certainly he finds a sense of contentment he is initially lacking. In this sense the film is indeed about a road trip, but it’s trip from a state of simple existence to one of genuine living, and one depicted with undeniable artistry and skill.

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