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Posts Tagged ‘1950s’

What makes things happen? Every cause has its own cause, and sometimes events have many sources. So to talk about the origins of anything is arguable a slightly dubious proposition. But for some reason it seems particularly questionable when talking about the original Godzilla (J-title: Gojira), the 1954 movie, directed by Ishiro Honda, which unleashed the great beast on an unsuspecting world.

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On the face of it, this is a monster movie in the classic style, albeit an unusually bleak and intense one. The story opens with a string of unexplained shipping losses in the Pacific, shortly after some H-bomb tests in the region. Fish stocks in the region also seem to have been devastated, causing some consternation to the villagers of Odo Island: one of the elders suggests that Godzilla, a legendary sea monster, is responsible. Then a powerful storm strikes the island one night, and something comes out of the sea and wreaks terrible havoc in the village, crushing buildings and their inhabitants.

Well, obviously the authorities in Japan can’t let that sort of thing go on, and they despatch top palaeontologist Dr Yamane (Takashi Shimura, who spends most of the movie looking haunted) to investigate – although, to be honest, given that Yamane is under the impression that the Jurassic Era was only two million years ago, his academic credentials seem a bit suspect. Fortunately (or perhaps not), the question of Yamane’s academic standing is soon, er, academic, as there is indeed a huge radioactive dinosaur running amok on Odo Island, although it soon takes to the sea…

Yamane is very depressed by the response of the Japanese government, whose sole aim is to kill Godzilla rather than do research on him, and almost completely ignores what’s going on in his daughter’s personal life: Emiko (Momoko Kochi) has decided to settle down with nice young sea captain Hideto (Akira Takarada), but is fully aware the anguish this will cause her former beau Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a brilliant scientist who was maimed in the war and has become a bitter recluse, and whose research has led to the development of a dreadful weapon, particularly effective against marine life…

The plotting of the bits with the human characters is always one of the special pleasures of the Godzilla series, and as you can see that was there right from the start: not only is there a melodramatic, soap operatic quality to all of this, but it’s also the most outrageous coincidence that nearly all the key human characters in the story should have this kind of pre-existing relationship. I suppose the film-makers would try to justify it by saying that a film as dark and fantastical as this one needs some kind of readily-accessible human story for audiences to connect to.

They would have a point, too, for the really memorable bits of Godzilla do not really concern the Yamanes and their friends, but Godzilla himself, particular the sequence in which the monster (initially referred to as ‘the Godzilla’, though this is quickly abandoned – the confusion may be due to the fact that there isn’t a definite article in Japanese) rises from Tokyo Bay and proceeds to lay waste to the city. Again, on paper this sounds like just another genre staple – the JSDF shoot at Godzilla a lot, which has absolutely no effect, and he goes on to tread on various buildings, set fire to others with his nuclear breath, and so on. However, on this occasion the realisation is very different: in subsequent films it’s extremely unusual for anyone to actually be shown dying in the course of a monster rampage, but on this occasion the death toll seems astronomical – Godzilla toasts fleeing civilians in the street, rips down towers and sends the onlookers in them plummeting to their doom, and so on. At one point we see a young woman, in the midst of the destruction, clutching her young children to her and telling them that they will all soon be together in heaven with their father. The aftermath of the main Godzilla attack is depicted like that of a major natural disaster, which is rather in line with how Godzilla is presented – an elemental force of devastation, like a tsunami or a typhoon, only much worse.

And here of course is where we come to the nub of the issue, namely what inspired Godzilla and what the film is really about. The film-makers themselves acknowledged The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms as an inspiration, a movie which was itself based on a Ray Bradbury short story, but that film doesn’t have remotely the same sense of utter trauma about it. The truth behind the central metaphor of Godzilla is of course well-known, and it isn’t as if the film itself isn’t dotted with clues: it opens with a terrible disaster befalling a Japanese fishing boat, but (tellingly) this isn’t a Godzilla attack, but being caught on the fringes of an H-bomb test – clearly an allusion to events befalling an actual vessel in 1954, the same year the film was made. Serizawa himself is a tormented, Oppenheimer-like figure, much given to musing on the responsibilities of scientists when it comes to their research being used as the basis of dreadful weapons.

It’s not quite so much that Godzilla himself is a metaphor for the atom bomb, than that his attacks on Japan are in some way representative of what befell the country in the closing stages of the Second World War – Tokyo burned, thousands were displaced or died, and so on. It took the Japanese people a long time to come to terms with how the war ended, and there’s clearly some sort of catharsis going on here, with the fantastical nature of the film making it possible to address these issues in a way that would not be possible in a more naturalistic story. And, once again tellingly, the story of Godzilla is very much in line with the official version of Japanese history, as far as the war is concerned – Godzilla himself is roused not by the Japanese but the Americans (or so it is implied). Japan is an innocent victim of incomprehensible outside aggression.

The original Godzilla is a dark and complex film, and in a way it’s quite surprising that so much of this hefty underpinning was abandoned so quickly in favour of knockabout monster battles. This first one isn’t nearly as much fun as many of the sequels, certainly, and it does have its own issues as a film – primarily, the climax is rather underwhelming and flat given how strong the earlier Godzilla rampage sequences were. But it does have a gravitas and power that the sequels just don’t, and it’s surely this that explains why people are still making films about Godzilla over sixty years later.

 

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Well, following a vague and unexpected stab at reviewing West Side Story last month, we may as well continue our meander through classic Hollywood musicals, in a new irregular feature entitled… you know, I really can’t think of a name for this strand. Gimme Some Jazz Hands? Once More With Feeling? Don’t Call Brosnan? Ladies and gentlemen of the NCJG readership, I throw it open to you.

Anyway, on this occasion the all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza in question is Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Guys and Dolls from 1955. Like West Side Story, this is a New York tale of lives of sometimes questionable virtue and the redemptive power of love, but while only a handful of years separate the two films, they seem to come from totally different worlds.

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A jolly opening sequence reveals we are in a world of gamblers and petty crooks, but not one which feels remotely threatening or grounded. Our attention is first drawn to Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra), whose living is the organisation of illegal gambling. Nathan is a man with problems – his long-term (and, one suspects, long-suffering) girlfriend Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) is growing increasingly insistent that he marry her, but more importantly, he doesn’t have a venue for the peripatetic dice game he has been running for several decades: the only option available requires a $1000 payment he simply doesn’t possess. To get the cash, he has the bright idea of making a bet with high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) that he will be unable to take strait-laced mission worker Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) out to dinner. Will Sky win the bet? If so, will Nathan be able to hold his game? And will the guys end up happily ever after with their girls?

No prizes for guessing the answers to any of the above. In the past I have praised the unique ability of the non-diegetic musical to combine the examination of serious social issues with the most uplifting, pure entertainment – but this is, of course, a best-case scenario, and Guys and Dolls is, I would suggest, not really a musical of the first rank. What does it speak of human nature? What is it fundamentally about? Well, er – sometimes you fall in love with someone you probably shouldn’t (rather more frequently than that, in my experience). Many men have commitment issues. And, er, that’s about it.

Guys and Dolls doesn’t attempt to be remotely serious or realistic in any way. Everyone talks in the most bizarrely mannered way, with byzantinely convoluted sentence construction and no contractions, as if to hammer home the unreality of the film’s milieu. Perhaps this is because a realistic film about New York low-lives would be tonally inappropriate for the fluffiness of the plot, but it does result in the film feeling even more detached from reality. Based on a couple of Damon Runyon stories, its status as a New York movie is compromised by the fact the whole thing has obviously been shot on soundstages. This is a musical with all potential rough edges filed down: not just a soft centre, but a soft exterior as well.

Even so, a musical setting out just to provide entertainment value isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the real problem with Guys and Dolls is that this is a two-and-a-half-hour musical, at the end of which you will probably only be able to whistle the tunes of two or three of the songs. Not that most of the rest are actually bad in their music or lyrics (the composer is Frank Loesser, by the way), it’s just they will most likely have slipped quietly from your memory by the film’s conclusion, leaving you with only the title song (sung by Sinatra, Stubby Kaye and Johnny Silver), ‘Luck be a Lady’ (by Brando), and ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’ (Kaye again). This is a notably low hit rate for a major musical, and I found my heart starting to sink whenever Vivian Blaine launched into another of her solo numbers: again, these aren’t actively bad songs, but they’re mostly just plot-stopping filler.

There are lots of other things, both good and bad, one could say about Guys and Dolls, concerning both the acting and the plot. You might expect Marlon Brando, the great exponent of the realistic performance, to be well outside his comfort zone in a musical as arch as this one, and it’s true that you get no sense that you’re watching One of the Greatest Actors of All Time from his performance. But he’s not bad; he passes the Brosnan Test comfortably, and even dances a bit without embarrassing himself. Jean Simmons is actually very good indeed as Sarah Brown, and their romance is genuinely touching in places, if a bit suspect in others (How to Handle a Woman the Sky Masterson Way consists of equal parts of moral blackmail and getting her smashed on Bacardi, apparently). On the other hand, the presentation of the Cuban characters in the movie borders on the racist (50s New York seems to be a whites-only city, too), and the climax seems to me to be badly mishandled: we don’t actually see the reconciliation of the two lovers, and the final double wedding is surely taking cheesiness too far.

Like I say, you could say all these things: but it’s really just refrigerator noise, given that this is a musical where most of the songs are not really that great. Perhaps I’ve just been spoilt, having seen West Side Story so recently, but I do think that a genuinely first-rate musical should have a killer-to-filler song ratio of at least 70%-30%. In Guys and Dolls that ratio is backwards, and this may be why it’s not better remembered. As it is, this is good-natured, mildly-involving, gently amusing entertainment, but nothing much more substantial than that.

 

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There is a class of film which is well-known and highly acclaimed, but not necessarily especially widely watched. The result of this is that it’s possible to become more-or-less familiar with the story and themes of the film, along with any other points of particular distinction about it, without having actually seen more than a handful of frames of it. One runs the risk of being spoiled, of course, but also completely wrong-footed when the realisation of the film turns out to be much subtler and more surprising than the study notes cut-down version has implied. I certainly found this to be the case with Kurosawa’s Ikiru (E-title: Living, or To Live), which is usually described as the story of a terminally-ill civil servant’s battle to construct a children’s playground. Saying ‘it’s actually nothing of the sort’ is probably overstating things, but there is a lot more going on here.

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The protagonist is Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a middle-ranking bureaucrat at the public works department in Tokyo. A dispassionate voiceover informs us that Watanabe is already dying of stomach cancer, but it is also scathing in assessing him as a man: he is not alive, he simply persists – he has done nothing, felt nothing, for the last thirty years. To his subordinates he is a grey nonentity, while to his son and daughter-in-law he is simply a source of an inheritance-to-come.

Then Watanabe discovers his disease – in a slightly startling scene, the doctors fob him off with claims that it’s just a small ulcer, despite the fact they know full well it’s terminal cancer (the reasons for this are never made entirely clear), but Watanabe works it out for himself – and, inevitably, everything changes. He reassesses his life, remembers his dead wife, realises the degree to which he does not connect with his son or daughter-in-law, and contemplates how to spend the short time remaining to him.

At this point, being aware of the plot synopsis for Ikiru, one of course expects the playground-building plotline to kick in – it is foreshadowed from the start of the film, when a group of housewives from the neighbourhood turn up at Watanabe’s office trying to launch the project – but it doesn’t. Instead, Watanabe, quite naturally, abandons his usual sobriety and embarks on a whistle-stop tour of the fleshpots of Tokyo with a novelist he has befriended, hoping to find some sort of hedonistic solace. And when that doesn’t work he finds himself drawn to Toyo, a vivacious young woman who used to work in his office (played by Miki Odagiri), simply for her sheer love of life. Their relationship is noted and misinterpreted by his family, amongst others.

Toyo’s new job is as a toymaker and she suggests that it’s from this she derives her sense of fulfilment and engagement with the world. It strikes Watanabe that perhaps he can achieve something similar, by using his remaining time to create something positive – and it’s only now, past the half-way point of the film, that he embarks on the playground-building mission.

And then the film abruptly jumps forward in time and the narrator announces that Watanabe died five months later. The final act of the film is Watanabe’s wake, a long, complex, and to be honest rather stagey scene in which various characters from his life gather in remembrance of him and try to come to some understanding of the odd behaviour which characterised his final months. As they recall him and his somewhat quixotic quest, we see flashbacks of Watanabe (there are distinct shades of Rashomon about this, not surprisingly as it was Kurosawa’s immediately previous film), but these scenes are disjointed and there’s no real sense of a narrative. But then this is as it should be, as it’s clear none of the mourners really understand the man they have gathered to remember.

So most of the actual playground-building quest happens off-screen. What, then, is Ikiru actually concerned with? It seems to me that there are a number of things going on here – not least of them being Kurosawa’s intention to put something of then-contemporary Japan on screen. To this day, it’s probably the case that it’s Kurosawa’s samurai movies which are best-known and best-loved (and rightly so: they’re wonderful), with his present-day movies more obscure. Of these, Ikiru is almost certainly the best-known, and it does feel like it’s showing something of the birth of modern Japan, with a deeply traditional society beginning to be obscured under layers of American-influenced culture. Kurosawa identifies a sense of urban alienation – a lack of empathy and communication between the generations – which also features in similar films from this period like Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

But then again it is also a personal story, built around the question of what makes life worth living. Asking the question is of course Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura, perhaps Kurosawa’s most brilliantly versatile collaborator. Arrestingly sagacious and invincibly capable as the leader in Seven Samurai, here he is equally persuasive as a man undergoing a profound existential crisis, teetering on the edge of ultimate despair. Shimura wrings every ounce of pathos from Watanabe’s plight without ever becoming too sentimental. Watanabe has allowed himself to be obliterated by his job, in the belief it was the best thing for his son – but his son has grown to be selfish and materialistic. Was it worth it? Either way, the first two thirds of Ikiru are about Watanabe’s attempts to realise himself as a person again.

The third act, though, raises different, but equally profound questions. The playground has been built, true, but swarms of bureaucrats and minor politicians are jockeying to take the credit for it: Watanabe seems to have been written out of the official history, and it’s clear that his colleagues have only the faintest glimmer of understanding as to what actually motivated him (much time is spent pondering whether or not he even knew he was ill). But to suggest that Kurosawa is saying that Watanabe devoted his last days to a folly seems to me to be mistaken. Watanabe’s colleagues’ declaration that they will honour his memory by following his example may come to nothing, but the people using the playground still hold him in high regard, the playground itself still exists, and Watanabe himself appears to have died in contentment. Perhaps here we can see Kurosawa’s prizing of the individual above wider society most clearly: a very un-Japanese sentiment, but this may explain his popularity in other countries.

There’s clearly a lot of depth to Ikiru, with many big universal themes touched upon. It’s certainly not Kurosawa’s most accessible film – the oddness of the structure sees to that – and it may not have the energy and pace of most of his period films from around this period of time. But it is a deeply thoughtful and quite moving piece of work, and quite probably Takashi Shimura’s best showcase.

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I am so used to finding myself completely out of step with the rest of the world that it comes as a bit of a shock on those occasions when it turns out my reactions and opinions are squarely in line with those of the majority. Then again, I suppose one of the definitions of a truly great film (or an utterly worthless one) is that it can produce the same response in everyone who watches it.

I was in my late teens and just in the process of becoming a film and TV bore when I made the acquaintance of a guy who was several steps further along than me. The rooms of his house were lined with tapes (this was over twenty years ago); tapes of The New Avengers and Doctor Who (he also had virtually a complete set of matches from Italia ’90 recorded, which just shows you never can tell), but also – and more pertinently for our current line of thought – most of the Hitchcock centenary tribute season one of the major UK TV channels had broadcast a while earlier. I was getting to the point where I thought I knew my Hitchcock, and ever-mindful of gaps in my education I borrowed the 1958 movie Vertigo off him.

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By this point I had already seen Psycho, Rear Window, and The Birds, and I thought I knew what I was getting into. The film has, somewhat atypically for Hitchcock, an in media res opening, with detective John Ferguson (James Stewart) in hot pursuit of a bad guy over the rooftops of San Francisco. But Ferguson slips and is left hanging by his fingertips over a multi-storey drop, and a fellow cop is killed trying to rescue him.

This event understandably leads to Ferguson developing a crippling fear of heights and quitting the police force. Finding himself at a loose end, he is retained by old college buddy Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who has an odd and slightly delicate problem. His wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) has been acting very strangely, visiting the former home of one of her ancestors and spending hours staring at her portrait. Elster is concerned about all this, half-fearing some kind of malevolent possession is in progress, and wants Ferguson to follow her and find out exactly what’s going on.

Initially dubious, Ferguson takes the job and almost at once finds himself struck by the beauty of his old friend’s wife, not to mention how strangely enigmatic she is. Can she really be genuinely haunted by a ghost which is driving her to take her own life? Averting an attempted suicide forces him to make her acquaintance, and now he finds himself becoming deeply emotionally involved with this troubled woman. But is there any hope for her? Or, come to that, him…?

Well, I sat down to watch Vertigo all those years ago, really expecting another smart, sharp, clever entertainment of the kind Hitchcock is renowned for, and ended up feeling… well, really rather baffled. This is not your typical Alfred Hitchcock movie. To be honest, it’s a difficult film to describe, especially if you don’t want to totally deconstruct (and thus spoil) the plot.

For one thing, the principal cast – certainly in terms of the characters who appear in more than two or three scenes – is tiny: just Stewart, Novak, Helmore, and Barbara Bel Geddes as Stewart’s pal. Even then, most of the film is composed of scenes between Stewart and Novak. This isn’t to say that the plot is simple – well, maybe it is simple; it’s certainly not complex or fast-paced, but if so it is fiendishly simple, containing multiple layers of subtlety and sophistication, some of which aren’t readily apparent on first viewing. There is arguably a sense in which the story makes some pretty big asks of the audience, and there are certainly a few more loose ends than you’d expect from a Hitchcock film, but then it seems to me that this is not a plot-driven film but a character piece.

If so, then it’s a character piece masquerading as a psychological thriller pretending to be a Gothic melodrama. Hitchcock’s intention to make the audience identify with Stewart’s character works on numerous levels – there’s the simple technical sense, in which Stewart’s in nearly every scene and we frequently see events from his point of view, but also on a wider narrative level: just as Ferguson is ultimately the victim of a put-up job, so to some extent is the audience, because the film we think we’re watching isn’t the film we think it is.

Hitchcock famously messed with audience expectations in Psycho, but it’s hard not to see that same intention in the structure of Vertigo, too. There’s a major plot reversal in the middle of the film that appears to go against every tenet of conventional storytelling, and it’s completely wrong-footing: you have no idea how the story is going to proceed from this point on. Any pretence at being a conventional thriller is certainly abandoned and the film becomes a rather bleak drama about all-consuming obsession and the horrible things that love can drive people to do to their lovers.

Here is where the real sophistication of the plotting comes in: quite naturally, as the film shows it, what entails is a situation where – on a thematic level – the ‘fake’ plot of the first part of the film, with a living person consumed by a shade from the past, is replayed for real. The brilliance of the script comes from the fact that the living person and the shade are both in fact the same individual. Vertigo poses some serious questions about identity, certainly when it comes to relationships – is it even possible for someone to impersonate him or herself? To what extent do we actually fall in love with with real people, rather than just our idealised images of them? Can love survive complete truth and honesty?

Pretty heavy stuff, and not leavened by any laughs, either. One of the many remarkable feats of the third act of Vertigo is that a scene which should feel clunky and melodramatic, and rather intrusive, is actually the turning point of the entire movie. Stewart departs the movie for a few minutes, leaving the stage clear for another character to actually deliver a monologue explaining the plot and how Ferguson (and the audience) have been misled by the villain, such as he is. It really shouldn’t work, but not only does it generate the suspense and pathos leading up to the climax, it effectively shifts the audience’s sympathies: Stewart actually becomes rather creepy and unsettling in his pursuit of his lost love (or at least her image), while a character who should have no call on the audience’s affection becomes engagingly vulnerable and sympathetic. It’s consummate storytelling sleight of hand, and I’ve no idea quite how Hitchcock managed it.

That said, most of the time in Vertigo one gets a sense of stuff going on that one isn’t entirely aware of. Hitchcock and the cinematographer are clearly doing something with Novak and the colours red and green: she’s frequently dressed in one or other of them or surrounded by it in the set dressing, but if there’s some kind of code going on here I haven’t been able to decipher it. All those scenes in the first half of the film of, basically, Stewart following Novak around San Francisco, too: they seem rather repetitive and slow but presumably the director is slowly and incrementally building our association with Stewart, and the idea of his obsession with Novak.

Vertigo is quite a long film, and not really a conventionally entertaining one: no-one in it ever seems particularly happy, not for more than a few seconds, at least. But it really does have that mesmerising, dreamlike quality so often ascribed to it: or perhaps, in the circumstances, not dreamlike but nightmarish. The opening titles of the film do a good job of conveying what’s to follow – Bernard Herrmann’s remarkable score plays over Saul Bass’s spinning, multicoloured vortices, which we initially access through Kim Novak’s eye. The message is that this is going to be an internal, psychological film, about loss of perspective and loss of control. And it is.

Vertigo baffled the critics in 1958 just as much as it did me thirty-something years later, but its critical reputation has recovered now to the point where it has displaced Citizen Kane as Best Movie Ever (Ever) on at least one list. I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t go that far, and I’m still not sure I would chose it over one of Hitchcock’s more conventional entertainments, but this is an extraordinary film in many ways: it confounds expectations at every turn while still being completely magnetic to watch, if never entirely comfortable.

 

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I am, all things considered, reasonably happy with this here blog which you happen to be reading – it’s not brilliant, but it gives me an outlet and it’s not like I’m charging anyone for the privilege of reading it. One thing it does occur to me that it is short of is Hitchcock, whose name is checked far more often than his films actually appear. Luckily, a welcome revival of Rear Window at the Phoenix has given me the opportunity to start fixing that.

Rear Window was released in 1954 and was Alfred Hitchcock’s seventeenth Hollywood movie: by this point he was already famous enough to get his name above the title of his own films. This is one of his most celebrated works, and watching it again it isn’t difficult to see why.

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James Stewart plays L.B. Jefferies, an ace photo-journalist coming to the end of a seven-week stretch laid up with a broken leg received in the line of duty. New York is sweltering in a heatwave and the heat and inactivity are driving him up the wall – he is also having committment issues with respect to his lovely girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly, long before she turned into Nicole Kidman). Jefferies’ only diversion from this is to look out of the titular window of his apartment and observe the minutiae of the lives of his various neighbours.

At first this seems harmless enough, but then one of them, a bedridden woman, mysteriously disappears, and her husband (Raymond Burr) begins to act a little oddly – trips out of the apartment in the dead of night with a heavy case, strange behaviour with knives and saws, and so on. A suspicion begins to grow in Jefferies’ mind, but how can he find evidence either way, confined to his apartment as he is?

I first saw Rear Window nearly thirty years ago – it must have been my first Hitchcock – and I was initially rather unenthusiastic about the prospect. I wanted to watch the other side, truth be told, and it was only my father’s insistence that we watch it just for a bit, together with the tiny size of the static caravan we were holidaying in at the time, that resulted in me giving the film any of my time.

Probably this is because, even back then, Rear Window looks and sounds extremely dated – the colour stock is unlike anything used today, it’s primarily just people talking in one room, and it’s obviously studio-bound. These days I am wise enough to understand that increasing age doesn’t necessarily equate with declining quality, and that many of the things that appear to count against Rear Window are actually at the heart of what makes it such a great movie.

To dismiss it as studio-bound is to completely overlook the merits of the vast, elaborate set on which the story takes place – it may not be completely naturalistic, but then this is a fairly tall story in the first place. And it’s the limitations of the story which make it special: for most of the film the only real speaking parts are Stewart, Kelly, Thelma Ritter as Stewart’s nurse, and Wendell Corey as his detective buddy: everyone else only appears as characters observed from a distance by Stewart.

You can see the appeal of this story for Hitchcock, even if only as a simple formal challenge – there’s the limited roll of characters, the fact it’s all grounded in a single room, and so on. But above it was surely the potential for directorial sorcery that lured him to this tale – the audience is practically compelled to identify with Jefferies, viewing his neighbours as he does, and reliant on the nuances of Stewart’s performance for clues as to how to respond to them. It is a masterclass in the principles of direction and editing and you can’t help but be drawn in. This is even with a surprisingly slow start: most of the first act is preoccupied with setting up the story and characters in an extremely leisurely way, most of the scenes concerned with Jefferies’ situation and his inability to make up his mind about Lisa.

But the tension slowly ratchets up, until the climax, when – well, look, I still clearly recall being absolutely speared into my seat, frantic with alarm, during the climax of this film, all those years ago: Jefferies is trapped in his apartment, seemingly helpless, with a killer on his way to try and silence him. It’s the biggest of several electrifying moments throughout the film, and Hitch springs them on you seemingly out of nowhere.

Rear Window works so well as a smart, witty thriller – like many Hitchcock films, it’s much funnier than you might expect – that it almost seems superfluous to try and mine it for any deeper concerns – we’re dealing with a master entertainer above all else here. However, there are perhaps the faintest glimmers of subtext about the nature of urban living. When you live on top of dozens of other people – quite literally so in some cases – your natural instinct is to mind your own business and close yourself off, overlooking what could be quite obvious signs of things going amiss. It’s only Stewart, the spy, the voyeur, who picks up on the clues, and even he seems unsure of the morality of his actions – is it justifiable to intrude on someone’s privacy, even in the name of justice? The film seems to suggest that it is, and also that people look out for one another more – but this remains a complex issue that has become perhaps even more important in the sixty years since this film was made.

It is first and foremost a supremely entertaining thriller, though, winningly played by Stewart, Kelly, and the others, and flawlessly directed. They don’t make them like this any more – but then again, you could probably argue that they only ever made one like this at all.

 

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I don’t get paid for writing about films, so why do I do it so much? The same reason I do anything else, I suppose: it seems worthwhile in some way or other. Another question which I get asked less often is why I’m so interested in films which are so old and (from a certain point of view) clunky that many people nowadays find them impossible to engage with.

Well – I don’t see the logic in saying that a film is bad just because it’s old; by that reasoning every film ever made is slowly deteriorating in quality all the time. But I do think that old movies offer us a useful perspective on the world at the time in which they were made, especially genre movies, which I generally find a lot more honest.

All of which is preamble to a look at the 1957 version of The Curse of Frankenstein, directed by Terence Fisher – yes, a bit of a mini-Hammer horror season of late. This particular movie comes loaded with significance – Hammer’s first Gothic horror movie, Christopher Lee’s first really striking lead role, the first colour version of this particular story, Lee’s first on-screen pairing with Peter Cushing…

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Cushing, of course, plays Baron Frankenstein himself. The film has an interesting framing device where a priest turns up at the cell where Frankenstein is being held prior to being guillotined for his terrible crimes – not because the Baron is seeking to repent, but because he wants someone to hear how none of it was really his fault…

Well, that’s a marginal claim at best, as we see. The film flashes back to Frankenstein as a youth (played by Melvyn Hayes from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, slightly startlingly), coming into his fortune and hiring his own tutor, Krempe (Robert Urquhart). Frankenstein’s brilliant intellect develops apace, and the investigations of the two men turn, almost inevitably, from conventional medical research to a somewhat darker avenue…

And it’s here, to be honest, that we start to see one of the things that marks Curse out as a product of its time. I was a bit indifferent about the Ken Branagh version of Frankenstein last year, but one thing which that telling does do well is to give Frankenstein some kind of motivation for his researches – why is this man so obsessively fascinated with and compelled to explore the secrets of life and death? Branagh answers this question; Fisher doesn’t. This film is more melodrama than drama, in which the plot dictates the characters’ actions rather than vice versa.

So Frankenstein starts assembling his infamous creation on rather dubious pretexts – mainly because the story demands it, as I said. Krempe is unimpressed and eventually refuses to participate, on the grounds that this experiment is obviously obscene. Perhaps it’s another example of cultural standards changing, or possibly it’s just me, but I wouldn’t say that reanimating a corpse is a ghastly crime against nature, per se – don’t we have defibrillators for just that purpose? Yet the film expects us to share Krempe’s opinion, I think.

The need to ensure this may be why Frankenstein himself, who is initially presented as someone unorthodox and slightly fixated but not actually evil, rapidly and not necessarily plausibly turns into a complete fiend. Needing a brain for his creature, he murders a kindly old professor who is visiting his home (sadly the brain gets damaged in a scuffle with Krempe) – and if that wasn’t enough, it is later revealed he has been up to some seigneurial whoa-ho-ho with the maid (Valerie Gaunt), whom he eventually has to dispose of using the Creature.

It’s a bit of a cliche to say this, but the fundamental difference between the Hammer cycle of Frankenstein movies and the Universal series is in their focus – the main character for Hammer is the Baron, while the Universal films are more about the Creature. This is certainly true here, as Christopher Lee doesn’t get much to do until quite late on (in a famous anecdote, he complained to Cushing about not getting any lines – ‘Count yourself lucky, I’ve read the script’ was Cushing’s reply), and he’s certainly more sinned against than sinning. Cushing’s Frankenstein, on the other hand, is definitely a bad guy.

So my memory has been cheating me, it seems – writing about the much later Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, I observed that Cushing’s Frankenstein was ‘rarely definitively evil’ – well, he certainly is here, originating the character. Possibly I’m letting Cushing’s usual screen persona of decent integrity confuse me, or the actor himself is quietly striving throughout to create a plausible characterisation in parallel with the requirements of the plot.

It all concludes with the usual mayhem, and along the way there are various examples of gleeful nastiness that horrified film critics at the time: severed body parts, acid baths, and a veritable fountain of Kensington Gore when Krempe puts a bullet in the Creature’s head (‘the shot heard round the world’ of horror films, as Mark Gatiss memorably put it a few years ago). This is a film of various creative tensions – first rate actors trying their best with melodramatic schlock, quality costume-drama trappings being laid about a gory B-movie – and perhaps it’s here that the essential magic of the Hammer films is to be found.

Every time I’ve written about one of the ‘first generation’ Hammer horrors in the past – mainly Dracula and The Mummy – I’ve commented, usually negatively, about how polite and well-mannered they were. That’s much less the case with The Curse of Frankenstein – there’s a rich vein of mischievious nastiness going on that still makes it stand out as something unusual, and special: the real origin of the Hammer horror brand, and an enjoyably over-the-top film even today.

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A group of European archaeologists discover the unopened tomb of a famous Egyptian dignitary, and despite the misgivings – and warnings – of some of the locals, they venture within in search of treasure and knowledge. Of course, while everything in the tomb is dead, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s completely inert…

I often talk about how the world’s most predictable movie genre is that of romantic comedy, but on the other hand you could make a fair case that the horror subgenre of walking mummy movies runs it pretty close: it feels like nearly all of them open in just this way, and what follows is often pretty samey too. I am here today to write about the 1959 telling of this particular tale, in Terence Fisher’s The Mummy.

themummy

This is one of the very first Hammer horrors. In the preceding couple of years the studio had scored a couple of big hits with blood-splattered renditions of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, and were cheerfully ploughing their way through every other classic Gothic tale they could lay their hands on (not to mention The Hound of the Baskervilles). The creative personnel involved seem to have come as a job lot – in addition to Fisher as a director, all of these films star Peter Cushing as either the hero or anti-hero, plus Christopher Lee clawing his way to iconhood  in a variety of roles as the heavy of the piece.

This time around Cushing plays Banning, youngest of a trio of archaeologists who discover… oh, well, we’ve covered that bit already, haven’t we? The twist this time is that Cushing has done his leg in and can’t go into the tomb himself so it’s up to his dad to do the peering about and prying into secrets of which man was not meant to know. As you might expect, something mysterious in the tomb sends Banning Senior spectacularly off his nut and he has to be shipped off home, eventually followed by Banning Junior, his uncle, and the various finds he has extracted from the tomb.

Needless to say there is about the scene a suspicious Egyptian character (played on this occasion by George Pastell), who swears vengeance on the despoilers of the tomb, no matter how long it may take. Vengeance ends up taking about three years, mainly because Cushing has blown up the tomb entrance (not an archaeological technique I recall seeing on Time Team very often) and it takes Pastell this long to dig out his partner in retributory mayhem: Kharis, a disgraced former priest placed in the tomb with its occupant (a lady who he had a bit of a thing for, hence the disgrace). Kharis is, of course, played by Christopher Lee, and spends most of his time being tall, menacing, and heavily bandaged. There is a brief flashback to happier times in which Lee actually gets some dialogue, but this still isn’t a particularly demanding role for the great man.

Anyway, Pastell and Lee pursue Cushing and his family back to… well, I didn’t spot anything in the film that really pins down where the majority of it is set. I suppose it could well be the sort of home counties backdrop that’s one of Hammer’s default settings, but on the other hand there are a lot of Irish yokels, Irish policemen, and peat bogs in the area, so it may well be this is supposed to be rural Ireland (just for a change, you know). The Irish yokels and peat bog prove fairly central to the plot, as the former manage to dump Lee’s sarcophagus into the latter early on, with the result that he’s rather more slimy than the traditional conception of a mummy.

Banning Senior is still off his nut and has been incarcerated in the local Home for the Mentally Disordered (I honestly kid you not, it even has a sign outside), and it is here that Lee and Pastell commence their slimy series of salutory strangulations. Being a brilliant investigative scientist, it does not take Cushing too long to work out that something is going on – but will he manage to crack the case before Pastell works his way down the death list to where his name is scratched?

This was, obviously, Hammer’s first crack at doing a mummy movie (they would end up doing several more), and one of their first attempts at doing a Gothic horror film of any description. As I mentioned when writing about the original Hammer Dracula, these very early Hammer horrors are much better-behaved and less lurid than their successors – this one doesn’t have much in the way of Kensington Gore in it (Lee getting his tongue cut out was snipped at the censor’s behest), and the mummy’s pursuit of his beloved is almost entirely chaste as well. In the dual role of Princess Ananka and Cushing’s wife (yes, they are lookee-likees, a pretty remarkable coincidence which the film simply demands that you roll with) is Yvonne Furneaux, who doesn’t get a great deal to do beyond swish her hair back and forth and be carried about by Lee.

I suppose you could argue that the lookee-likee thing is just an inarticulated instance of the reincarnation trope which is a staple of this particular genre. But in every respect this is pretty much a bare-bones take on the story: I suppose the thinking at the time was that simply doing a mummy movie in colour was such a striking innovation that they didn’t have to worry about doing anything new or clever with the actual script, and as a result all we’re left with is a revenge melodrama largely consisting of a series of set-piece mummy attacks.

Christopher Lee, as you’d expect, gives it everything he’s got as the titular monster. To be honest, the part really doesn’t require that much, but Lee insists on giving Kharis little moments of pathos when he’s not strangling people or being stabbed or shot. He and Cushing approach their various physical confrontations with their customary gusto, and – again, as you’d expect – Cushing approaches the role of the misguided archaeologist with his usual commitment and precision. Even here the script verges on the perfunctory – the arc of Banning’s character should be that of an initially arrogant man forced to reconsider his worldview as a result of his confrontation with the dark forces he inadvertantly stirs up – the subtext of this whole genre is essentially ‘Let the past rest in peace’ – but again, the script doesn’t dig into this in any real detail.

The Mummy isn’t actually a bad film, but it is a short one, and perhaps that’s also a factor in how briskly by-the-numbers the script seems to be. This is a movie which covers all the essential elements of a mummy film atmospherically and effectively. It’s just that it barely does anything else.

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