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Posts Tagged ‘1950s’

Irving Cummings’ 1951 film Double Dynamite has the feel of something which wasn’t really getting the full attention of any of its originators. It was produced in 1948 under the title It’s Only Money, as one of the first films made by RKO after Howard Hawks bought the studio; it then sat on the shelf for years, during which time Hawks changed the name – Double Dynamite sounds like a meaningless fridge title, until you figure out it’s a reference to the bust of leading lady Jane Russell (not that she or the bust is particularly prominent in the movie).

1948 was also the year that Frank Sinatra co-starred in On the Town, one of those films which has really lasted. Bizarrely, he’s third-billed in Double Dynamite, despite being the leading man. He plays Johnny Dalton, a reserved and prudent bank clerk, who is engaged to be married to his co-worker Mibs (Russell). But they just don’t have enough money to actually marry or start a life together, something which is causing some angst in the relationship. Their friend Emile (Groucho Marx), a waiter in the local restaurant, doesn’t help matters much when he suggests that the shortage of cash is just a convenient pretext to disguise Johnny’s commitment issues: Mibs duly storms out of the restaurant in tears when she hears this suggestion. ‘Are you happy now?’ demands Sinatra. ‘Not really, I was hoping for a tip,’ replies Groucho. (He’s not wearing the famous greasepaint moustache and eyebrows, but Groucho Marx’s role in the film is basically just to be Groucho Marx – he even seems to be doing a toned-down version of the Groucho lope in a few scenes. The other two, in contrast, are rather cast against type.)

Well, on the way back to the bank, a disconsolate Johnny comes across a man being beaten up in an alleyway, and being a decent sort he steps in to rescue him. The victim (Nestor Paiva) turns out to be one Hot Horse Harris, proprietor of an illegal bookie’s, and in gratitude he gives Johnny (rather against his will) a thousand dubious bucks, which (courtesy of a multiplier bet the crook also insists on treating his rescuer to) ends up as $60,000, obviously a huge sum. Could this allow Johnny and Mibs to settle down together at last? Should he be worried about the dodgy provenance of the cash? Nonsense, says Groucho – it’s only money, so make the most of it!

Cue a slightly baffling but nevertheless charming interlude, as Groucho Marx and Frank Sinatra perform a jaunty duet together entitled ‘It’s Only Money’ (Sinatra later commented, half in jest, that singing was the only thing he could do better than Groucho). There are only a couple of songs in Double Dynamite, so it hardly qualifies as a musical, but I suppose the thinking was that it’s Frank Sinatra, so he has to sing at some point (maybe The Manchurian Candidate would also have been improved by some crooning about the technicalities of brainwashing). This is a perky little tune, but the staging is rather distracting, as the duo caper down a street – thanks to the miracle of substandard back projection, they and the background seem to be travelling at different speeds.

Anyway, all looks good for Johnny, until it is revealed that the bank he and Mibs works for has a huge black hole in its accounts, and investigators are trying to work out if one of the employees has pinched it. This is not a good time for Johnny to be swanning around with large amounts of cash, especially as the bookie he got it from has dropped out of sight and can’t confirm his account of how he got it…

What ensues is a sort of amiable farce, with lots going on: Sinatra has to quietly steal back all the gifts he’s given to Russell, Groucho volunteers to look after the money and ends up impersonating a millionaire who made his money in pickled pig’s feet, Russell is pursued by the lothario son of the bank president, and so on. Groucho’s scenes in particular are good fun – one wonders how much of his dialogue was ad libbed, or at least written by him – but the plot is a bit of a shambles.

It honestly feels like another one of those movies where the makers thought that just casting three stars like Sinatra, Russell and Groucho would be enough to guarantee results. It hardly ever works that way, though – as noted, Groucho is always good value, and Sinatra’s singing is as melodious as you might expect, although Jane Russell doesn’t get quite as good material as either of them. The problem is that one almost gets the impression they’re making the script up as they go along – the best farces are precision-tooled devices of entertainment, relying on intricate plotting and timing. Double Dynamite just meanders about from scene to scene.

You can perhaps see something of an influence from the screwball comedy genre on Double Dynamite – the film is, after all, about a romance, and there are the usual misunderstandings and false identities and scrapes with the police involved. Even before It’s Only Money, the film was provisionally titled The Pasadena Story, something obviously intended to recall The Philadelphia Story and The Palm Beach Story, two of the best-known screwball comedies. Compared to films like that, though, Double Dynamite just feels shapeless and baggy; the characters are nowhere near as strong as the ones in Howard Hawks’ own Bringing Up Baby, and the script doesn’t come close to sparkling in the same way – though, this being a script from the forties, the dialogue is often unexpectedly good (even if there’s a slightly laborious in-joke about the police hunting a man with a ‘strong resemblance to Frank Sinatra’ at one point).

In the end Double Dynamite is one of those films which manages to be very insubstantial despite the presence of three big-name talents. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it, but less than a day later most of the details of the plot are already beginning to fade from my brain. It obviously has a certain curiosity value, but I’m not sure it’s accomplished enough to really be worth seeking out.

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The line between inspiration and plagiarism can be a thin one sometimes. Occasionally one comes across a movie which, shall we say, wears its influences very openly, and the question is – did the makers see another movie and genuinely enjoy it so much they felt compelled to create their own homage to it, regardless of brazen this appeared? Or were they simply just cashing in?

The thing about Bert I Gordon’s 1957 film Beginning of the End is that you sort of want it to be the former even while you find yourself regrettably compelled to conclude it’s the former. This is a film which is virtually a beat-for-beat remake of Them!, the granddaddy of a certain subgenre of 50s monster movies – but on the other hand, director Gordon operated extensively in this same area – this wasn’t his first take on this kind of material, nor his last (he became known as Mr BIG not just for his initials, but for his fondness for making giant monster pictures).

(The poster even looks like a knock-off of the one from Them!.)

The beginning of Beginning of the End opens in time-honoured style with a young couple enjoying the classic 1950s pastime of sitting together in a parked car. You know this is going to end badly for them, for we are not quite yet at the point where young adults are allowed to be the protagonists in this kind of film, and so it proves, for the end of the beginning of Beginning of the End sees something terrible but obscure descend upon them (she screams, helpfully establishing the tone).

After the end of the credits which are at the beginning of Beginning of the End (oh, yes, I can keep this up all night), we are briefly with a cop car which comes across the wreckage of their car, but soon find ourselves with plucky young reporter Audrey (Peggie Castle), who really is the protagonist – for a bit at least. The disappearance of the young couple is soon eclipsed by the fact that a whole town in the vicinity has been flattened and its entire population has vanished. The National Guard has surrounded the location and are trying to keep the whole thing quiet. This naturally involves keeping Audrey well away from the ruined town, which is a bonus for the producers as they don’t have to spend any money on a ruined town set. This kind of consideration weighed quite heavily on the minds of the producers of this film, I suspect.

Audrey, however, has sufficient pluck to keep on investigating, which leads her to the research laboratory of Dr Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves, deploying his usual gift for unwarranted gravitas). Sadly she doesn’t have sufficient pluck to keep Graves from stepping in and assuming the role of lead character at this point, and she rather vanishes into the background from this point on. Despite being an entomologist, Graves is working on solving the problem of feeding the world by growing giant radioactive fruit and veg, with the help of his assistant. His assistant has been rendered a deaf mute by a radiation accident, which may be to create pathos and increase representation, but is more likely because this means they don’t have to pay the actor for a speaking role.

Graves, Castle, and the mute dude head off to investigate a nearby grain silo which was destroyed some time before the town, and are startled, to say the least, when a badly-composited grasshopper the size of a bus rears into view. (The movie tends to use grasshopper and locust interchangeably, but as you can perhaps tell, precise scientific rigour is not Beginning of the End’s strongest suit.) Graves’ assistant is gobbled up by the grasshopper and the other two flee the scene, possibly to call their agents.

Yes, the bugs have been nibbling on the radioactive veg and as a result have turned into insatiable giants, and the local woods are infested with the things, as the National Guard learn to their cost when they investigate. This isn’t the most flattering presentation of the Guard, or at least its leadership, as the plot demands they basically ignore all of Graves’ very sensible warnings and act like idiots throughout. But there is an even more pressing problem than the public image of the National Guard’s command: the giant grasshoppers have eaten everything in sight and are swarming in the direction of Chicago. Are the authorities going to have to drop a nuke on the city, or can Graves come up with a way of dealing with the colossal pests?

So, as noted, another giant bug movie very much in the same vein as Them!. I think Them! is a genuinely great movie, and one positive thing you can say about Beginning of the End is that it does make the virtues of the earlier film much more obvious: it works very hard to be gritty and realistic, has a real sense of looming disaster, and makes good use of decent production values – lots of extras and some relatively good giant ant puppets. Beginning of the End couldn’t actually afford any of these things and so it concludes with Peter Graves firing a tommy gun out of a window at live-action grasshoppers which have been persuaded to sit on a photographic blow-up of a Chicago tower block.

Alarm bells may ring for some viewers when the screenwriting credit (which, lest we forget, comes towards the end of the title sequence at the beginning of Beginning of the End) is given to Fred Freiberger, working with Lester Gorn (his only venture into screenwriting). Fred Freiberger has a notorious reputation as the man who was on the scene when Star Trek, Space: 1999 and The Six Million Dollar Man all got cancelled; he once favourably compared being a prisoner in a Nazi prison camp to having to deal with incensed Trekkies. (We have discussed his special screenwriting talents before.) This time, however – well, the script doesn’t exactly shine, but neither is it completely terrible.

If the script has a problem it’s that it calls for the giant grasshoppers to do all sorts of things the special effects department is just totally incapable of realising. They can just about manage a moment where a grasshopper rears into view from behind a low obstruction in the foreground; when they have to start attacking buildings or chasing people through woods, disaster looms, and not in the way the script wants: ropey back-projection battles obvious stock footage to a standstill. It is this which launches Beginning of the End into the realms of camp and is responsible for its dismal reputation.

I have to say, though, that I found it pretty watchable on the whole: it’s formulaic from start to finish, and not especially well-made in any department, but there’s something oddly comforting and enjoyable about it. Graves in particular is obviously taking it very seriously and, largely as a result, the movie has a sort of kitsch grandeur to it which I found very entertaining. A bad movie, but not quite a total waste of time.

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Alfred Hitchcock, in addition to his many other innovations, came up with the notion of fridge logic: by which he meant the way that a story can hang together just well enough to entertain the viewer, at least until they get up and go to the refrigerator to get a beer – at which point they say ‘Hey, waiddaminute…!’ and the whole spurious narrative edifice comes tumbling down. Or, to put it another way: if you keep things really, really entertaining and go really, really fast, most viewers won’t notice the plot holes first time round.

How well this principle still stands up in the DVD age, where some directors almost seem to design their films to need multiple viewings to become wholly comprehensible, is debatable. However, it also seems to me that Hitchcock also came up with – or at least made use of – the related idea of ‘fridge titling’, where the name of a story bears no obvious connection to anyone or anything actually mentioned in it. This idea has also had a long and reasonably noble history, and no doubt it will stay with us, assuming the cinema industry recovers from the current unpleasantness. (As a tribute to Hitch I have given this review a fridge title.)

A movie which has a fridge title and relies somewhat upon fridge logic is Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest. (The title seems to allude to Hamlet’s declaration he is ‘but mad north-north-west’, but if so quite what the link is remains impenetrably obscure.) This is a film which came towards the end of Hitchcock’s 1950s imperial phase, slotting into the gap between Vertigo and Psycho – and it hardly suffers in comparison to either of them, which just goes to show what a roll Hitchcock was on at this point. However, where Vertigo is a self-referential, dream-like psycho-drama, and Psycho essentially raises the curtain on the modern American horror movie, North by Northwest is something from a wholly different part of Hitchcock’s register – and while it may not be quite as revered as either of those other two films, in a way it may be the most enduringly influential of the three.

The story opens in New York, and proceeds to crack on with great economy. We are swiftly introduced to advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), perhaps a bit of an amiable rogue in a very domestic way. Through sheer bad luck, Thornhill gets himself mistaken for the mysterious and elusive George Kaplan, who appears to be an agent of the security services, involved in pursuing members of a communist spy ring. Two members of the gang bundle Thornhill into the back of a car and whisk him off to meet their leader, Vandamm (James Mason) and his henchman Leonard (Martin Landau). Thornhill, understandably, can’t give them the information that they want, and so they decide to arrange his death – needless to say he manages to avoid dying in the first twenty minutes of the movie.

However, this lands him in trouble with the police, and in order to prove his story Thornhill tries to track down Kaplan, with no success – and indeed only manages to make his enemies even more convinced he is the man they want. Very soon Thornhill finds himself framed for a murder he did not commit, fleeing across the country and desperately trying to locate Kaplan, who may have the answers to what is happening. It seems like his only ally is cool young blonde Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) – but can Thornhill afford to trust anyone…?

One of the brilliant touches about North by Northwest is that, having set all this up, the film very sensibly takes a step back and explains (for the viewer’s benefit, if not Cary Grant’s) what’s really going on. In one of a small number of scenes not to feature Grant’s character, we find ourselves at some sort of FBI committee meeting where exposition is briefly provided, mostly courtesy of Leo G Carroll, playing a donnish spymaster known as the Professor: Thornhill is chasing a phantom, as Kaplan doesn’t exist – the evidence of his existence has been created to act as a decoy and distract the gang, without placing a real agent in danger (and hopefully distract attention away from the real informer they have in Vandamm’s ring).

This scene doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it clarifies the plot enormously and means that most of the rest of the movie can proceed slickly, with a minimum of pipe-laying. Also, it comes at the end of the first act, when the viewer is ready for a brief break from the action. One of the things about this movie is how immaculately paced is it, and another is the way it switches flawlessly between its various modes: understated romantic comedy between Grant and Saint, moments of tension as Grant finds himself having to pull off another unlikely escape, and what these days we would call action set-pieces, include two of the most iconic sequences in cinema history – the one where Grant is menaced by a crop-duster while out in the middle of nowhere, and the climactic chase across the face (literally) of Mount Rushmore.

While all this is happening, something else slightly more subtle is going on in the story, too. One text on story structure describes the journey of the protagonist as being that of ‘orphan, wanderer, warrior, martyr’, and that journey is happening here as well – Thornhill starts the film as a clueless innocent, baffled by everything happening to him, but his efforts to unravel the mystery only make things worse and he finds himself cut off from his old life, searching for Kaplan. Finally he begins to take steps against his enemies, even to the point of willingly risking his own life against the Professor’s orders. By the end of the film, Thornhill has effectively become the daring and effective spy that he was mistaken for at the beginning of the film – and when films with this kind of structure are made today (for example, The Spy Who Dumped Me, or – less recognisably, perhaps – American Ultra), they usually end with a coda showing the protagonist has embraced this new career. (Hitchcock chooses to end with a naughty visual pun instead.)

Watching Grant glide through the movie as a suave, resourceful, womanising secret agent, and considering the film’s mixture of glamorous, iconic locations, well-handled action, witty dialogue, and slightly outlandish characters, I can’t help but think that it would only take a couple of spoonfuls of extra grit for North by Northwest to be instantly recognisable as what it is: the proto-Bond movie, and, as such, the ultimate progenitor of every other film ripping off or positioning itself in opposition to the Bond franchise, from Our Man Flint to Enter the Dragon to Austin Powers to The Bourne Identity. It’s not surprising that Cary Grant was top of Eon’s wish-list when it came to casting Bond for Dr No, though the actor’s refusal to sign on for multiple films (and quite possibly his salary demands) led to them going down a different path. (Mason was also offered the part, while the TV series The Man from UNCLE, one of the Bond franchise’s small-screen imitators, likewise acknowledges the influence of North by Northwest by essentially getting Leo G Carroll to reprise his role as the Professor as Alexander Waverly, head of UNCLE.)

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman has spoken of how his desire to make ‘the ultimate Hitchcock movie’ was central to the origins of North by Northwest; it also seems that many of the film’s most memorable elements originated with the director – the crop-duster scene apparently sprang from Hitchcock’s desire to find out if he could produce an effective suspense sequence in broad daylight, in a wide open space. Is this the ultimate Hitchcock movie, though? Well, as noted, it is somewhat less revered than the two films made on either side of it, and it certainly possesses fewer of the darker and more complex psychological elements that sometimes bubble to the surface in Hitchcock films. However, as a slick piece of escapist cinema it stands up fantastically well even sixty years on. A superb entertainment and an immensely influential film.

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When a film comes along nowadays and makes a billion dollars, you’re somehow not surprised when there’s a rush to, erm, emulate that success. Do I mean emulate? Possibly I mean ‘capitalise on’ or possibly ‘exploit’. Whatever: very successful films beget other very similar films, which are hoping to be equally successful. Whether this is simple good business based on analysis of the market or some byzantine form of sympathetic magic I am not entirely sure; the concept isn’t a surprise, just the identity of some of the films involved.

Now, I have never made any secret of the fact I am a great fan of Robert Wise’s 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still: it’s a wonderful film, and one of the few that really qualifies as comfort viewing for me, something I go back to again and again when the real world gets just a bit too depressing. However, for all of its cultural clout (Klaatu barada nikto and all that) I didn’t think it had been that much of a hit – and indeed it apparently only did okay on its original US release.

It seems to have had a big impact in the UK, however, as a cursory look at British sci-fi films over the next couple of years reveals. We have already discussed the peculiar delights of 1956’s Devil Girl from Mars, which I quickly pegged as a rip-off of The Day the Earth Stood Still. What I didn’t realise then was that this was not the first such rip-off to show its face – which brings us to Burt Balaban’s 1954 film, Stranger from Venus.

Evidence we are in a tunnel some distance below the bargain basement comes very early in this film, as the film-makers address the issue of how to present a Venusian spacecraft flying in the skies over England, without having the budget to pay for too many models or special effects. They solve their problem in the time-honoured manner: footage of the ground, shot from the air, is intercut with ordinary British people looking up in surprise and pointing at something the audience is never made privy to.

Also in the area is not-very-ordinary-in-that-she’s-not-British person Susan North, who is American. One suspects this is mainly to save Patricia Neal, who plays her, from having to do a British accent. Yes, this is the same Patricia Neal who is in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and (more importantly) The Day the Earth Stood Still itself. She does the same accent. She has pretty much the same haircut. This is because she is essentially playing the same part.

Seeing the UFO makes Susan crash her car, at which point she is approached by someone or something (cue credits). Shortly after this a mysterious stranger arrives at the local pub, reveals he has no name and can read thoughts, and generally drops hints he is not from the immediate area. In an immensely hokey device presumably intended to preserve a sense of mystery, the stranger is filmed from behind with his head in shadow. It turns out he is an alien from Venus and has used his alien powers to save Susan’s life following her car crash (cue various locals looking mildly concerned from behind their pints of beer). The local bobbies attempt to take him down the station for questioning, but it turns out he has a (very cheap) invisible force-field that turns anyone trying to interfere with him into a bad mime. The actor saddled with playing Policeman #2, who gets all the ‘Sarge – I just can’t – seem to get a grip on him…!’ material is Nigel Green, later to do fine work in films like Jason and the Argonauts, Zulu, The Ipcress File, and Countess Dracula, which just goes to show that everyone has to start somewhere.

Eventually, however, the stranger’s face is revealed, and it turns out to be that of Helmut Dantine, an extremely obscure Austrian actor (well, obscure unless you’ve memorised the cast list of Casablanca, in which he plays a desperate young refugee). Dantine struggles hard to find the same kind of Olympian detachment, gravitas and decency as Michael Rennie in that other movie, but these qualities generally elude him and he just ends up droning out cosmic wisdom in a gravelly Austrian-accented monotone.

Well, attentive readers may well be able to guess just why the Venusians have reached out to the Home Counties: Earth is seen as the annoying kid brother of the solar planets, and its habit of messing about with atomic weapons is really winding up everyone else. So the Venusians want to address a meeting of world leaders and make it quite clear that all of this has got to stop, toot-sweet. But will the Earth people listen? More importantly, will the British establishment listen?

In case you hadn’t guessed, we are dealing here with the purest kind of rip-off movie: it is not quite a beat-for-beat remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (that would require a much bigger and more lavish production, for one thing), but everything of interest in this film is replicated from it.

Court cases have been brought over this kind of thing in the not too distant past: I’m thinking of New Line lawyering up and taking on The Asylum over their decision to release a film entitled Age of Hobbits (or something like that) to cash in on the second Peter Jackson-Tolkien trilogy. Well, this was an issue in the fifties, too, which is why Princess Pictures (who made Stranger from Venus) played it safe and didn’t give this movie a theatrical release in the States: the other film was still on re-release and Fox might very well have sued. So it turned up on TV instead, under the (perhaps unintentionally honest) title of Immediate Disaster. (It’s also been released as The Venusian.)

Well, maybe it’s not a complete disaster: all the actors seem to be trying their hardest with the very ropy material they’ve been assigned, and it’s interesting to compare it to Devil Girl from Mars: this is an even more primitive production, but it does manage to retain vestiges of an air of seriousness. Devil Girl is just daft, for all that it has better special effects and retains (though inverting) the central metaphor of the American film. I would have to say that Devil Girl from Mars is more entertaining to watch, though. The presence of Neal is the only thing that really makes this film stand out, though, making its true nature not just obvious but brazen. In every other way it feels flat and underpowered.

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I seem to recall that at one time there was a school of thought that the reason Akira Kurosawa became the most internationally-feted Japanese film director of his generation (as opposed to, say, Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi) was that he deliberately made films that were accessible to foreign audiences and thus (there was always an implicit sniff at this point) not really authentically Japanese enough. Proof of this is sometimes offered in the fact that Kurosawa was always open to using western stories as the source material for his films (there are his famous adaptations of Macbeth and King Lear to a Japanese milieu) and also that his own original films proved to have enormous potential when it came to English-language remakes. There is a whole lineage of remakes of Seven Samurai, usually as westerns but also as science fiction, horror, and kung fu movies, and the same is also true to a lesser extent when it comes to Yojimbo (two remakes and various sequels).

None of these did quite as well as the English-language remakes of The Hidden Fortress (J-title: Kakushi toride no san akunin), a film Kurosawa made in 1958 (when I was younger I’m sure this film’s title was usually translated without the definite article – hey ho), but then these were rather less faithful and more thematic versions of the story anyway. The first of these was made in 1977 and directed by George Lucas, and was the first (but also the fourth) episode in his stellar conflict franchise. The second was made in 1999 and directed by George Lucas, and was the first (but also the fourth) episode in his stellar conflict franchise. One of them is adored, but the other reviled, which only goes to show – exactly what, I’m not sure, but it must show something.

The film opens with two ragged, miserable peasants named Matashichi and Tahei (Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki) staggering across an inhospitable landscape, endlessly bickering about which one of them smells worse. It turns out that they are former farmers, who made the unwise decision to invest in the most recent civil war and become soldiers, only to lose everything as a result. Angrily, they separate and try to make their own way out of enemy territory – but they are equally useless and pathetic when operating individually, and both get captured very quickly by the enemy.

It seems that their captors are looking for the gold reserves of the recently vanquished House of Akizuki, and the prisoners are put to work digging for it in truly hellish conditions – so hellish, in fact, that the peasants mount a revolt and break free from their captivity – an epic set-piece ensues, with swarms of desperate loincloth-clad prisoners charging down a flight of stone steps towards rows of musket-carrying ashigaru – it feels like it has been influenced by Sergei Eisenstein, while also anticipating the truly spectacular battle scenes in Ran (Ran was supposed to be being revived this spring at the UPP in Cowley: a small casualty of the lockdown, of course, but still one I feel keenly).

Tahei and Matashichi are quite surprised not to die in the fighting, but head for the hills. Here their luck seems to change, as they find gold bars hidden inside hollow sticks – it’s the Akizuki treasure everyone’s been looking for! Unfortunately, they also find a taciturn but imposing stranger (Toshiro Mifune, almost inevitably), who seems to know a bit about the gold himself. He leads the peasants to a – here we are at last – hidden fortress, previously owned by the House of Akizuki, where a few desperate survivors have gathered and are planning to make the dangerous journey to friendlier territory. The stranger turns out to be Makabe, the Akizuki family’s general, while as well as the gold the family’s other great treasure is here: Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), a wilful teenager who doesn’t like being told what to do by the general.

Eventually Makabe decides the circumstances are right, and the motley group set off for the border: Makabe himself, the princess (pretending to be a deaf mute), and the two peasants, all of them loaded down with the gold. Will Makabe and Yuki stop squabbling long enough to notice their companions plotting to steal all the gold and run away? Will any of them make it to safety without being shot?

Truth be told, you could probably watch The Hidden Fortress and never notice the influence it had on either of the stellar conflict movies it supposedly inspired: those aren’t anything like as close to the original, in plot terms, as the American remakes of Seven Samurai or Yojimbo, although I suppose you can see an echo of the relationship between Mifune and Uehara’s characters in that between Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman in the 1999 film. Lucas himself has said that the main inspiration was really one of perspective: for a story which is largely concerned with the fate and deeds of nobles and their retainers, it’s quite unusual that the viewpoint characters are the people of the lowest social standing in the story, but it’s this that he retained in his own script.

That said, I think you would struggle to find much sign of Lucas’ famous droid double act in the scumbag peasants here, for they are much more morally dubious and often unsympathetic characters: at one point they find themselves left alone with the sleeping princess, and promptly start drawing straws for who will have the pleasure (it is strongly implied) of raping her (another character appears and intervenes before this goes anywhere). This is an extreme moment, and perhaps a rare misjudgement from Kurosawa, for in many ways what the film is about is the difference in perspective between the two duos (Makabe and Yuki, and Tahei and Matashichi) and their outlooks on life: the peasants live life on the most basic level, concerned with simple survival and grubbing for money, while on the level of the general and the princess it is honour and nobility which is most important (it is the honourability of Makabe which ultimately leads to the film’s happy ending). But the film is also about what the two sides learn from each other: the princess comes to appreciate the privileges she enjoys, and what it is to live like one of her subjects, while the peasants learn about the value of trust and friendship before the film is over (but only just).

It all sounds like Kurosawa in the classic style, and there is indeed much to enjoy here: Mifune is at his most formidably dynamic, Chiaki shows off some of the comic timing he displayed as the joker amongst the seven samurai (a third member of that immortal septet also shows up, as Takashi Shimura gets a brief cameo as another Akizuki advisor), and there are some epic set pieces and compositions. The problem is that, to a modern audience at least, the film seems rather slow and self-indulgent – it doesn’t have anything like the simplicity of premise or economy of script that Seven Samurai had: you know that bit near the start of the ’77 stellar conflict movie where the droids have a row, split up, but get captured and stuck back together, and the whole thing has no bearing on the plot? That’s a very Hidden Fortress-y bit of meandering plot. Of course, some of the various tangents and diversions eventually set up key plot developments, but some of them don’t. For this reason, I have to say that Hidden Fortress seems to me to be mid-table Kurosawa at best: interesting, and with some really good individual bits, but lacking in the sustained quality of his true masterpieces. As the film which inspired the film which changed the course of cinema history, it doesn’t quite live up to its own publicity.

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I can’t help thinking that there have been a lot of drossy movies on this blog in the last few days, and watching and thinking about all these bad movies does wear one down a little (the films I watched but didn’t bother writing about – Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, two of the Indiana Jones series, and Krull – were hardly classics, to be perfectly honest). So let’s look at some good films, for a change, undisputed works of brilliance – undisputed by me, anyway, and as this blog is run on a democratic, one-person, one-vote basis (I’m the person and I get the only vote), I get to decide what counts as brilliant.

There was a time when I was in my late teens and early twenties when I would occasionally have cause for great excitement: I was already very interested in films, and was starting to get a sense of what was agreed to be in the canon of great movies. Occasionally something I really wanted to see would come on TV (as often as not in the middle of the night, but so it goes) and so I would have the slightly nervous experience of setting the VCR, then checking the settings several times, coming down early to make sure the film had recorded okay, and then finally watching it (frequently to discover it didn’t quite live up to expectations – for example, it took me many years to learn to appreciate the quality of an oddball film like Phase IV).

One film that did live up to expectations was Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (J-title: Shichinin no Samurai), which played very late one Sunday night just before my last few A-levels. It felt like a very well-timed reward for the end of my school education, although it was a few days before I could secure the TV for long enough to actually watch it. I had already seen a couple of Kurosawa movies by this point – Yojimbo and Ran had both been on in the previous couple of years – but I knew that Seven Samurai was the big one, already guaranteed a place in cinema history simply because of the number of other films and TV episodes that had, essentially, ripped it off (three of those, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Battle Beyond the Stars and the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, I’ve looked at already).

The movie opens with a brief caption explaining the strife-riven nature of sixteenth-century Japan, then fades up on a black horizon under a gloomy, overcast sky. Armoured horsemen rise into view, silhouetted in long shot, and the thunder of hooves is the only sound. These are the bandits who are the chief driver of the plot. They halt atop a hill overlooking a small village, and have a shouted discussion as to their plans: the villagers will have nothing worth taking at the moment, but if they return once the crops are harvested…

The bandits ride off, and will not appear again until the second half of the movie. But their plan has been overheard by a villager, who tells his fellows, and there is a fraught debate as to what to do – try to appease the bandits? Mass suicide? Attempt to resist them? Every option seems to end with the destruction of the village. The oldest and wisest man in the village has another idea, however: recalling a similar situation where the bandits were driven off by samurai warriors hired for protecton. But how are they to pay for the services of these elite, aristocratic warriors? ‘Find hungry samurai,’ is the old man’s advice.

This proves to be slightly trickier than expected: on going to the nearest big town, their first candidate proves to be a lazy, craven slob. But things turn around when they meet Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a vastly experienced warrior prepared to make sacrifices if the cause is right. He is soon joined by Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), a young boy looking for training; Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a strongman who becomes Kambei’s lieutenant; Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), an old comrade of Kambei’s; Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), an irreverent clown; and Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a supremely skilled swordsman. Also tagging along, and bringing the numbers up to that all-important seven, is Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who affects to be a samurai but is really an uncouth, unpredictable slob.

You’re probably already familiar with this story, even if you haven’t seen any of the various remakes and reimaginings that have followed it: the samurai return to the village, where they gradually win the trust and respect of their new employers. Preparations are made and then the bandits finally return, in which the skill and determination of the defenders is tested to the utmost. It is such a sturdy story-structure, with its various sub-components (for instance, the recruiting of the team) able to be extracted and repurposed as well. And Kurosawa seems to have invented it virtually from scratch, even if he did apparently get the idea for the film from an actual historical incident.

Apart from the fact that this film was made by one of the masters, there are a couple of things that elevate it above the films and TV episodes that followed (and, it must be said, some of those are also very good indeed). The sheer length of the film – getting on for three and a half hours – gives space for a plethora of subplots and character moments, giving each of the seven – and many of the villagers – a chance to develop into a genuine character. They play off each other in a variety of combinations throughout the film; no-one is there just to make the numbers up, everybody gets at least one big moment. This may be a long film but it is also supremely economical: there is barely a wasted moment.

The other thing that distinguishes it is that most of the films that followed are fantasies, one way or another: even the original version of The Magnificent Seven, which is supposedly a ‘straight’ western, is obliged to engage in some awkward plot contrivances to preserve Kurosawa’s structure (keeping the Mexican government on-side may also have been a factor). This version, however, is set in a specific historical context, which heavily informs the story. Many of the subplots arise from the tensions arising between the farmers and the samurai, who are basically from different social castes and are initially somewhat suspicious of each other (perhaps with good reason). You possibly have to be Japanese to appreciate all the nuances of this, but you can get a strong sense of what’s going on no matter where you’re from.

In the end it resolves with the famous battle in the rain, a last-man-standing struggle to the death between the samurai and villagers on one side and the last few bandits on the other. Obviously, the technical capacities of the 1950s were different from those of today, and this is reflected in the special effects and fight choreography, but in terms of movement and composition and editing, there are still few things to match the battle sequences of this film for fluency and energy.

You probably know how it concludes: there are winners and losers, possibly on the same side. But there is still something about the ending that seems very satisfying and appropriate, for all of the sadness that comes with it. Sadness for the fallen villagers and their defenders, and sadness that not even this film can go on forever. Although, to be perfectly honest, I think it probably will.

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Hindsight is a curious and not always reliable beast. I was at the Stanley Kubrick exhibition in London the other weekend and it only confirms, as though that were needed, his status as one of the most revered film directors in history – one of those handful of people who have been able to combine enormous commercial success with the most exacting artistic standards. After watching a film like 2001 or Barry Lyndon, it’s impossible to conceive of a Kubrick who wasn’t quite certain of his art, or just finding his way behind the camera. You just expect piece after piece of majestic, formal brilliance.

And then Former Next Desk Colleague offered to lend me The Killing, Kubrick’s 1956 movie and the one widely considered to be his mainstream debut. Would you recognise it as a Kubrick movie were his name not in the credits? Probably not, but if you put any two or three of his later movies together and show them to someone not familiar with films, they would be unlikely to instantly recognise them as the work of the same artist.

The film opens with black-and-white, documentary-style footage of a racetrack, over which the credits roll, accompanied by some strident music. It soon becomes clear that we are in a film noir, and one which is being executed with a high degree of formal and technical confidence: the story is told out of chronological order, with some scenes overlapping and being shown from different perspectives. The actual story is simple enough: veteran criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is planning one last big job before he retires (it’s a bit of an old chestnut, but never mind), and to this end he is putting together a team of people to help him rob the racetrack of $2 million (back in 1956, $2 million was probably a lot more than $2 million, too). Amongst those in on the scheme are a corrupt cop (Ted de Corsia), one of the track bartenders (Joe Sawyer), and an unhappily married teller (Elisha Cook Jr).

Naturally, things are never going to go completely to plan in this sort of film and the first problem is that George, the teller, just has to go and tell his wife (Marie Windsor) that he is onto a good thing and will soon have a lot more money. Clay attempts to warn her off, but she persists in telling her lover (Vince Edward), in the hopes that they can somehow help themselves to more than just George’s share of the money. Unaware of all this, Clay continues his preparation for the heist, which include hiring a couple of other men to create diversions for him – a wrestler (Kola Kwariani) and a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey). The plan has multiple stages and relies heavily on precise timing. Given the rather variable quality of the men on his team, can Johnny Clay get away with it?

Well, obviously this is a genre movie – or several different flavours of genre movie, to be precise. Most obviously it’s a heist movie, and sticks relatively close to the formula of introducing the different members of the gang and establishing their special contributions to the undertaking – although Kubrick avoids the scene where the planner runs through exactly what’s supposed to happen in the course of the robbery, preferring to let the viewer find out as it’s going on. It is also unmistakably a kind of film noir – while much of the film takes place in broad daylight, and there isn’t much in the way of visual stylisation, there is certainly a deeply amoral, cynical tone to the story, even perhaps shading over into existential angst as the film nears its conclusion.

Acting honours go Hayden, who is commandingly cool as Johnny Clay, but also to Cook and Windsor as the deeply unhappy couple whose failing relationship turns out to be central to the unravelling plot. I understand that Marie Windsor’s career was apparently impacted by her sheer height, meaning that most Hollywood leads were reluctant to appear with her; well, she is well-cast here with the diminutive Elisha Cook, although you do wonder just how these two got together in the first place.

However, it is the taut and efficient way the story is told which really makes the film distinctive. This is a very good genre movie, but even so you would struggle to recognise that the director would go to be quite as feted as Kubrick eventually was, and there are certainly points which you suspect a more experienced Stanley Kubrick might have handled a little more deftly – the terse voice-over establishing the chronology of the film is a little bit on the nose, and there’s also arguably an issue with Kwariani’s thickly-accented delivery making his lines unintelligible (shades of Tor Johnson in Plan Nine from Outer Space). Still, he makes for an effective heavy (this was Kwariani’s only film – apparently he died, some years later, after single-handedly taking on five much younger men in a street fight).

The film has a slightly slow start, but once the characters are established and the preparations for the heist are under way, it becomes a completely involving thriller, and a deservedly influential one. You can detect elements of The Killing in films as apparently different as Logan Lucky (another tale of a complicated heist at a racetrack), while I’m pretty sure the rubber mask Heath Ledger wears during the opening robbery in The Dark Knight is a homage to the one worn by Sterling Hayden in this film. The most obvious beneficiary, however, is Reservoir Dogs, another cut-up tale of a robbery which goes badly awry amidst mistrust between the thieves, concluding with a significant body-count.

Some would hail Tarantino as a director in Kubrick’s league, although I am not one of them. Once again I find myself obliged to say that while this may be one of Kubrick’s minor works, it is still a film most directors would be extremely proud of. The structure of the script we can certainly credit Kubrick for, even though the dialogue was apparently the work of one Jim Thompson, a crime novelist, and the deftness of the camerawork and cinematography is also clearly down to him. Hindsight is a untrustworthy and deceptive thing, but you would be forgiven for concluding that Kubrick began in the same way he continued: this is a superior, classy movie.

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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 more 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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