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Posts Tagged ‘1950s’

John Sherwood’s 1956 film The Creature Walks Among Us doesn’t get off to a very promising start, as we meet insanely wealthy, and likely just insane doctor William Barton (Jeff Morrow) and his wife Marcia (Marilyn lookalike Leigh Snowden), whom you just know is going to turn out to be trouble. They are driving to his boat, berthed in Florida, where a gaggle of interdisciplinary boffins have been assembled for a very special, and somewhat nutty mission: they are going to hunt down and capture the gill-man, still on the run (if that’s the right expression – possibly ‘on the splosh’ would be better) despite being shot at the end of Revenge of the Creature. It’s all a bit flat and on the nose.

Sherwood worked on the two previous gill-man films as assistant director, but you really do miss the presence of Jack Arnold, who had been promoted to more prestigious projects by this point (it is, perhaps, significant that none of these ‘prestigious’ movies has anything like the reputation of his SF and horror work). You can’t help thinking that he would have found a way to lift the film out of the rather pedestrian furrow it pursues, for most of its first half at least. We get to know various scientists on the team, most of whom are quite dull, learn that the relationship between the Bartons is strained on account of his jealous nature, get suggestions that one of the team may have designs on Marcia, and so on.

Finally, and we must be about half-way through the film’s allotted 77 minutes at this point – the pacing is really shocking – the hunt for the gill-man bears fruit as the boffins contend with the creature in the Florida swamps. Someone chucks kerosene over the gill-man and it does seem to be a combination of third-degree burns and chemical tranquiliser which overcomes the proud but ornery beastie. As usual, he is dragged off to be examined, poked, and prodded.

The Creature Walks Among Us probably isn’t quite as good even as its immediate forebear, but it does have one curious idea to offer, which enters the narrative at this point. The gill-man’s, er, gills have been badly damaged when he was set on fire, but a medical examination reveals he does have lungs as well, he just needs encouragement to use them. And so, using the kind of complex scientific procedure known only to mad boffins in 50s SF B-movies, the gill-man is surgically converted from an aquatic denizen of the deep to a land animal. As a result of this, the creature’s whole physiognomy begins to change, losing much of his fish-like appearance and becoming rather more human. He also seems to have been put on a strict diet of those protein shakes gym bunnies live on, as he bulks up like you wouldn’t believe – the original incarnation of the creature had a rather sinous, sinewy appearance, whereas this mutated version is just a hulking tank of a monster. The scientists decide that the now more human creature will need clothes, so he spends the second half of the film wandering around in what look rather like medical scrubs.

Quite what the thinking was behind this transformation in the monster, I really don’t know – it doesn’t really have a material impact on the plot of the film. Perhaps the original gill-man suit was falling to bits after two movies, and the revised costume was cheaper to fabricate. What it does make for is an evem greater sense of the gill-man as a victim of human cruelty and callousness – never mind being stuck in a tank and then poked with a cattle-prod, in this film the poor old gill-man even loses his gills! What is a gill-man without his gills, I ask you? Perhaps he’s just a man. Perhaps that is the point after all.

Certainly the more humanised creature is a rather more subdued and less violent individual than he used to be, and much less prone to forming ill-judged romantic attachments to inappropriate partners. (Perhaps more than his gills got surgically taken off.) In this movie, the humans are quite capable of handling all that sort of thing for themselves, as Barton and Marcia continue to drive each other crazy and Jed the boatman (Gregg Palmer) continues to press his adulterous suit with her. It’s all a bit like something out of a melodramatic potboiler, only with a seven-foot-tall guy in a rubber mask in the mix somewhere, and you know it’s going to end badly for quite a few of the people caught up in it.

That’s the other slightly odd thing about The Creature Walks Among Us – in the first two film, the gill-man was the main menace and driver of the plot, mainly due to (as noted) his habit of fixating on the leading lady. Not only is he much more sympathetic in this film than even the previous one, but he isn’t even the main villain – that role goes to Barton. The gill-man’s role in the climax is a retributive one, as an agent of some kind of natural justice – he’s not really a menace, he’s the one who ensures the villain gets what he deserves. (And yet the film still ends on a sombre, ambiguous note, with the gill-man shambling towards an ocean where he can no longer survive, perhaps choosing death over the cruelty and unfairness of human civilisation.)

I’m probably making this film sound much, much better than is actually the case, because as an actual piece of film-making it’s fairly shoddy stuff, not even lifted much by the presence of competent performers like Morrow and Rex Reason (the two of them also appeared together in Jack Arnold’s classic flying saucer extravaganza This Island Earth). As noted, the pacing is rotten, the budget is clearly very low, and Sherwood just doesn’t have Arnold’s way with the camera. But it does have a couple of mildly interesting ideas to its credit, and one thing about the gill-man trilogy I’ve never seen much commented on is the fact that it really does feel like it has a kind of unity of conception – the three films are all about human beings screwing around with nature in general, and the gill-man in particular. He steadily becomes less of a monster and more of a victim as the three films continue – this is possibly the weirdest and least expected bit of sustained character development in the whole of Hollywood cinema. Or perhaps I’m just clutching at straws. In any case, there are just enough interesting ideas here to make the film worth watching – at least, if you enjoyed Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature, you’ll probably won’t regret watching this one, either.

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These days, doing a series of sequels is so often part of the game plan when a movie is made that the key personnel are frequently signed up on multi-film contracts right from the outset. Sequels weren’t always so respectable, nor profitable, and so it’s rare to find all the major cast members coming back in older films of this type. Sometimes, the reappearance of even a relatively minor cast member can feel like a pleasant surprise.

So it is when Nestor Paiva reappears as Lucas the boat captain in Jack Arnold’s 1955 movie Revenge of the Creature, reprising his performance from the same director’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. Paiva’s the only speaking character to come back (Ricou Browning is still in the monster suit for the underwater sequences), but it’s still a welcome touch of continuity when he does. Following all the shenanigans of the original film, word has got out of the existence of the prehistoric gill-man, supposedly a missing link between terrestrial and marine life (though Lucas declares it to be nothing less than a being of demonic power, stronger even than evolution itself!). Ocean Harbour, a water park in Florida, has hired fish-wrangler Joe Hayes (John Bromfield) to bring it back alive for study and display. With admirable briskness he does just this, even though it involves the customary bout of wrestling with the gill-man and the use of what I believe is sometimes known as dynamite fishing. The gill-man is dragged back to civilisation (Black Lagoon, we hardly knew ye) and installed in a tank, manacled to the bottom.

It turns out that Joe Hayes is not in fact the hero of the movie, for this honour goes to animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (John Agar, something of a fixture of Jack Arnold’s SF films). Clete decides to head on down to Florida and check the gill-man out, but not before the moment for which Revenge of the Creature is probably best known and perhaps most notable. One of Clete’s lab assistants gets a theoretically amusing bit about some of the experimental rats: the actual gag is pretty lousy, our interest stems from the fact that the assistant is played by Clint Eastwood, making his big-screen debut. Well, you gotta start somewhere, I suppose: there’s not much here to suggest that Clint would go on to become one of the most popular and acclaimed film-makers of the late 20th century, but there’s only so much you can do with a duff gag about rats and a lab coat. (For his next movie with Agar and Arnold, Clint was promoted to jet pilot, playing the guy who bombs the monster at the end of Tarantula!.)

Anyway, Clete arrives in Ocean Harbour where he quickly becomes fascinated by the gill-man, and very nearly as interested in glamorous icthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) – who, to be fair, is extremely pretty and meets the ‘must look good in a bathing suit’ requirement of this kind of film with flying colours. While Clete and Helen are supposedly studying the gill-man, what they actually seem to be doing more closely resembles a rather cruel training regime, heavily dependent on the use of what looks like an underwater cattle-prod (I’m sure there must be health and safety issues with that). Poor old gill-man clearly hasn’t figured out that these surface girls are nothing but trouble and that age-gap relationships never work (especially when the gap in question is between the Devonian Age and the Anthropocene), and falls hard for the lovely Helen. Eventually he busts out, jumps in the sea, mysteriously doesn’t die from osmotic shock, and starts causing all sorts of trouble.

The film’s been a bit of a mixed bag so far, but at this point it takes a definite turn in the direction of Jaws – The Revenge. Clete and Helen decide to take their minds off things by going on a bit of a holiday together (it’s all outwardly very respectable so as not to outrage the censor, but they’re clearly going to be at it like rabbits), and check into a motel on the edge of the Everglades. What a very extraordinary coincidence it is that it is next to this very establishment that the gill-man should clamber out of the swamp and come sniffing around. Clete and Helen try to get on with their holiday, but the finny stalker just won’t quit, and there is bound to be trouble before the film reaches the end of its 82 minute running time…

Even post-Shape of Water, it’s hardly as if Creature from the Black Lagoon is an unequivocally acclaimed movie, so it’s hardly surprising that its sequels have an equally schlocky reputation. This is no great injustice, however, as Revenge of the Creature (I think the working title Return of the Creature from the Black Lagoon has a better ring to it, but it is fairly on-the-nose) is not some great overlooked classic, either as sci-fi or as a monster movie. It starts off sort of acceptably okay and then quickly becomes quite variable – the middle section, in which the gill-man is chained up in his tank while Clete and Helen blandly romance each other in between bouts of shock therapy, goes on for a long time without very much happening, while the final section is just a bit silly, and saddled with an ending which is abrupt and unsatisfactory – you can almost see the film-makers hitting the 82-minute point and then calling it a day.

Taking the creature from the Black Lagoon out of the Black Lagoon was probably a necessary step for the sequel, but it does rob the film of something of the original’s atmosphere. I can see there’s something to the school of thought that the first film is, on some level, an eco-fable about the destruction of the environment, but that doesn’t seem to have carried over as such – what is interesting, though, is that there seems to have been a deliberate attempt to make the gill-man more sympathetic this time around. He is blown up, dragged off to civilisation in a coma, chained to the bottom of a tank, repeatedly electrocuted, and so on – if only he didn’t have these wildly over-optimistic designs on pretty girls in bathing suits, the audience would probably be rooting for him.

As it is, the film is just too silly to really get that involved with. The script and setting aren’t as interesting as in the first one, but in every other respect, while it’s a step down, it’s no more an outright disaster than Creature from the Black Lagoon. It doesn’t do anything particularly interesting or original with the gill-man, but it’s sort of mildly diverting – no more than that, though.

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Reckless use of atomic energy upsets the natural order of things, spawning a terrible monstrosity which rises from the sea and threatens the dominion of man, devastating a famous city while scientists work desperately to find a way to resolve the situation. Given a capsule synopsis like that, it’s not entirely surprising that Behemoth the Sea Monster is often dismissed as simply a low-budget rip-off, a minor work cluttering up an already overcrowded genre. Well, maybe. In some ways I feel it’s the very familiarity of many features of this film which make it interesting, if not exactly essential. (This film also trades under the title The Giant Behemoth, which is just a bit too close to a tautology for my tastes.)

Okay, so, basic information first – this is a British-American film, released in 1959, and co-directed by Eugene Lourie and Douglas Hickox (Hickox’s debut production). Already connoisseurs of the loopier kind of genre film (and sometimes it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else hanging around this blog) will have pricked up their ears, for Hickox would go on to make the brilliant (and almost entirely different, in terms of sensibility) Theatre of Blood, while Lourie’s name appears on a number of interesting and accomplished films, most obviously The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Gorgo.

It’s over a decade now since I made my first vaguely systematic attempt to write about American sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s, but watching Behemoth get underway brought it all flooding back – it so closely adheres to the conventions of the genre that one could make a pretty good case that this is an archetypal exemplar of it (despite not actually being an entirely American film itself). It opens with the requisite cod-Biblical quote, declaimed over stormy seas, before a montage of A-bombs going off and a rather poetic monologue about scientists investigating the aftermaths of such blasts. This comes from imported American star Gene Evans, playing (but of course) visiting nuclear physicist Dr Steve Karnes, who is addressing some sceptical establishment scientists. The scene is a familiar one, but the dialogue is unusually well-written and the substance of Karnes’ speech is still strikingly on-point today – the ocean is not some bottomless dustbin for all the world’s rubbish and poison, but part of our environment, and what affects the tiny creatures at the bottom of the foodchain will eventually reach us, with unforeseeable consequences. Needless to say Karnes gets a cool reception, but local eminence Professor Bickford (Andre Morell, basically reprising the same performance he gave in Quatermass and the Pit on TV a few months earlier) is sympathetic and respectful.

Nevertheless, in terms of establishig the theme of the film, this whole scene is a bit on-the-nose and is basically just there to introduce the two lead characters nice and early on. When a bit of actual plot becomes essential, we go off to Cornwall where a nice old fisherman, checking his tackle on the beach one evening, is killed when… well, it’s initially unclear, for there is some radiophonic noise and a sudden flare of intense light. But we know this movie is called Behemoth the Sea Monster so we suspect the answer will prove to be an outlandish one.

The old man’s death is followed by masses of dead fish washing up on beaches all around Cornwall. Mixed in with the fish is something which looks a bit like mashed potato but virtually burns the hand off one young fisherman who tries to pick it up; we are left to conclude for ourselves what the lethal mash actually is. (The experienced viewer will not be surprised by the strict delineation in the movie between the working class (brave, headstrong, essentially helpless), the military (brave, organised, essentially helpless), and the scientific establishment (brave, brilliant, and capable of doing virtually anything if given enough time and resources). The few women characters in the film don’t benefit from such careful character development, though they are certainly less brave.)

Karnes and Bickford hit the scene and eventually conclude that something big and radioactive is lurking off-shore – unfortunately it proves to be undetectable by radar or sonar, which pads out the movie a tad. But, like any respectable sea monster, Behemoth rapidly gets bored with hanging around out in the sticks and sets course for London, though not before frying a local farmer and his son first. The trail of car-sized footprints tips our heroes off to what they’re up against, and they check in with eccentric paleontologist Dr Sampson (Jack McGowran), who seems more delighted than anything else by the prospect of seeing a live relict dinosaur (Behemoth is, we are informed, a paleosaurus from the fictitiosa group – a close relative of the rhedosaurus, if one were inclined to be ungallant). Suffice to say he probably changes his opinion when Behemoth nukes his helicopter while he’s attempting to observe the creature.

Well, you get the idea – and even if you haven’t, the chances are you’ve probably seen another film with something very similar going on. Thankfully the film is soon able to stop counting the pennies, abandon its attempts at something approaching documentary realism, and splurge on the big stop-motion monster rampage stuff which is what the audience is here for: Behemoth sinks the Woolwich car ferry (this would probably have been a big deal at the time), tears down a few cranes, appears to demolish Westminster Bridge, and generally wreaks havoc in London, while the scientists are desperately concocting a means to eliminate this menace… but is it already too late?

I fished out my dog-eared copy of The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Companion to refer to while watching Behemoth the Sea Monster and found it received only a distinctly average rating of two brontosauruses out of five. This strikes me as a bit unfair, but also perhaps understandable, as this is in many ways the awkward middle child of three very similar films directed by Lourie in the course of a decade – it doesn’t have the bravura animation sequences of Ray Harryhausen to boost its climax, just some quite primitive and clearly underfunded work from an elderly Willis O’Brien and his team, nor does it have the colour or scale or brilliant central twist of his final film. So what’s the point of it, if it brings nothing new to the party?

Well… new is a relative thing, after all, and what makes Behemoth quite striking, if you’re not prepared for it, is quite how seriously everyone is taking the story. This kind of film is often dismissed as basically just kiddy-fodder nowadays, simply because even the best effects have dated so poorly they now seem laughable, but the film is trying to make serious points about the environment and ecology, albeit in a monster-horror-movie idiom. It seems to me that Lourie wasn’t just repeating himself – he’d clearly seen what Ishiro Honda had done with the ‘atomic sea monster’ idea in the first Godzilla film, producing an movie of extraordinary resonance and bleakness, and was attempting to incorporate some of that atmosphere back into an English-language genre movie.

This is most obvious in the sequence where the monster first comes ashore and attacks London. Some of the acting from the extras is charmingly awful, it’s true, and the monster is notably less charismatic than other equivalent beasts, but there’s a real sense of panic and terror in some of the scenes featuring fleeing crowds – the camera is much closer to them than is usually the case with a crowd-fleeing-from-giant-monster shot – and as Behemoth blasts them with atomic rays we see them tumbling to the ground, flesh covered in gruesome radiation burns. This is not kids’ stuff; nor is the way that (in the ferry sequence) it is firmly established that women and children are amongst the victims. In terms of monster-related grimness, I’ve seen nothing like it except in the original Godzilla.

All that said, I still found Behemoth to be slightly hard work – it’s not a complete rip-off of any single film, but that doesn’t mean there is a single element of it that is genuinely original. All of its ideas come from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, or Godzilla, or other sci-fi monster movies of the period – whatever creativity is involved just concerns how the different ingredients are mixed together. If you’re genuinely interested in atomic monster horror movies, then the subtle difference in the formula here will probably be enough to make it a rewarding watch for you. If not, then there are several other movies telling basically the same story with much more impressive results.

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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 (or perhaps that should be from beginning to end), 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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