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Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

I hate this particular moment: ‘I can’t believe you haven’t seen…’, usually from a close friend of acquaintance, many of whom seem to be under the flattering but erroneous impression that I have somehow managed to watch every single movie ever made. This time it was Former Next Desk Colleague (a temporary office reorganisation has occurred), startled to hear that I had never seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s and was contemplating checking out a revival simply to get me out of the house and spare me the delights of microwaved cheeseburger for lunch. No, I hadn’t seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s – I’ll come clean and admit that I’ve never seen Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, Bicycle Thieves, Gone With the Wind or Tokyo Story either. So sue me. (Everyone else has watched these films, so I don’t feel much in the way of pressure: whereas it feels like I’m the only one really taking an interest in movies like Captive Wild Woman.)

So, anyway, off to the Phoenix for Vintage Sunday it was, and I will just mention in passing that the days when you could enjoy this particular strand safe in the knowledge you wouldn’t have to sit through all the usual nonsense adverts for cars and phones seem to be over. Even though the movie is now on release, we still got clobbered with one of the promotional films for Alita: Battle Angel, with Jim Cameron wittering on about ‘scale’ and ‘heart’ – I would love to see the film Cameron thinks he’s made, it sounds fantastic.

Anyway, yes, Blake Edwards’ legendary 1961 romantic comedy, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one of those films that everyone, even me, has a vague idea about even if they’ve never seen it. Things get underway in an early-morning, apparently deserted Manhattan, with Audrey Hepburn getting out of a taxi and wandering around outside the famous jeweller’s while eating pastry – i.e., Breakfast at Tiffany’s actually opens with someone having breakfast at Tiffany’s! You have to admire a movie which gets to the point with such admirable alacrity.

Hepburn is playing Holly Golightly, who is an aspiring movie starlet, a good-time girl, or something with a rather more opprobrious ring to it, depending on your point of view. She basically swans about at parties and so on, persuading wealthy (and usually much older) men to give her their cash. Despite her natural charm and wit, Holly is also a bit of a ditz and useless with money, so this isn’t quite as lucrative as it could be, so she is also being paid to visit a gangster in prison (this sounds like another quirky character bit, but eventually turns out to be a crucial plot point). Likewise financially embarrassed is up-and-coming writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard), who has just moved into the same apartment building and is basically the kept man of a wealthy older woman (Patricia Neal).

Well, Holly and Paul get acquainted and soon become close, as attractive young people inevitably do in this kind of film. But, with an equal degree of inevitability, the path of romance runneth not smooth for them – both of them have things from their pasts that they have to deal with, and beyond all this there is Holly’s declaration that she is a wild free spirit, incapable of being tied down, not for love or money! Well, maybe for money…

No-one could seriously argue that Breakfast at Tiffany’s has not become an iconic film, mainly for Hepburn swishing about New York being adorable and chic, and also sitting on the fire escape singing ‘Moon River’ (I’m sure there are some people with a vague notion that this is a musical). Certainly it remains a massively popular film – the Phoenix was practically sold out – and on one level it’s easy to understand why. As romantic confections go, it is hard to beat: this is New York as a playground, where even the imprisoned drug dealers are sweet old gentlemen, and the worst thing that can possibly happen to you is it raining on your new hairstyle.

Yet the film has surprising moments of pathos to it, too, although it would really be pushing it to suggest this is genuine depth. There’s something quite affecting about Buddy Ebsen’s cameo as the gentle, wounded, uncomprehending Doc, not to mention the quiet anger and frustration displayed by Paul as the film goes on – for people of my generation, George Peppard will always be that semi-deranged Vietnam veteran off the TV, but he gives a very well-pitched performance here, carrying his scenes and acting as the audience’s viewpoint, and all without threatening to drag the focus of the film away from Audrey Hepburn.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the film’s assembly of unhappy men are all ones who’ve made the mistake of getting involved with Holly Golightly. If this film didn’t quite work for me, then it’s for this reason – I’ve met people like Holly in real life, charming, vivacious, attractive, almost totally amoral. I am reminded of Fitzgerald’s quote about careless people from The Great Gatsby (and there is something quite Gatsby-ish about Breakfast at Tiffany’s in many ways) – ‘they smashed up people and things and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness… and let other people clean up the mess.’ Possibly the most romanticised thing about Breakfast at Tiffany’s is Holly Golightly herself, as in real life she would be a self-serving nightmare. That she is not is down to Hepburn’s undeniable, extraordinary charisma and charm, which seduces you into overlooking these things, and makes an on-paper rather unlovable character rather adorable. Have cake, eat cake, still have cake: now that’s the magic of cinema.

I was about to write that in any discussion of Breakfast at Tiffany’s there’s an elephant in the room, but then this isn’t really true as it’s one of the things that everyone talks about when it comes to this film nowadays. I refer, of course, to Mickey Rooney’s performance as Holly’s neighbour Yunioshi, which is by any reasonable standard a grotesquely racist caricature. Deeply regrettable doesn’t begin to cover it: Yunioshi is peripheral to the plot, and could probably be cut out of the film without doing too much damage to its substance, but this really only makes it worse – the movie seems to be going out of its way to be offensive. Apparently it was criticised for this even on its original release, and Blake Edwards apparently came to regret his choices here – I’m not sure that Mickey Rooney’s own contribution of ‘those who didn’t like it, I forgive them’ strikes quite the right note, however.

On the other hand, when I moved to Japan for a while in the mid-2000s, one of the things which struck me was the fact that Audrey Hepburn was still a massively popular icon over there, to the point where old footage of her was being incorporated into bank adverts and so on. This seemed a bit unusual for an actress whose best-known film is arguably mildly but gratuitously racist towards Asians. There were quite a few Asian people actually attending the screening that I went to, and finding myself in the queue to get out next to a young Japanese couple I took the opportunity to ask them what they thought about the Yunioshi character. My Japanese isn’t what it used to be, and their English was not that great, but they seemed to find the character more quaint than offensive – ‘it wasn’t racist, people should just take it easy’ was the gist of their response, which strikes me as perhaps a bit too generous.

I will be honest and say that Breakfast at Tiffany’s didn’t really connect with me, but I can understand why it is still so beloved of so many people. As simple star vehicles it takes some beating, for the whole film has been contrived with the sole intention of making you fall in love with Audrey Hepburn. I still think the film is a bit too rose-tinted, and occasionally it drifts across the border from romance into sentimentality, but on the whole I can still appreciate the skill and talent involved in making it.

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Before we go any further: Ishiro Honda’s 1964 movie Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is one of those which exists in various different versions depending on which country you’re in – the changes extend as far as certain plot elements (mostly ones communicated by the dialogue, which is of course dubbed for the English-language release), but there is also the question of the title, which is given on screen as Ghidrah (etc). As any fule kno, the three-headed monster spells his name with an O near the middle of it, and the title card therefore contains a blatant typo which I will be ignoring. So, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster it shall be.

The movie may be short on vowels but it’s certainly not lacking in plot, or outrageous coincidences. Things get under way at a meeting of the Flying Saucer People, which is also attended by perky young journalist Naoko (Yuriko Hoshi). The assembled goofballs mostly spout gibberish but also give ominous warnings of impending disaster, pointing out the unseasonal heatwave afflicting Japan. Actual flying saucers do not turn up (this being a mid-60s Toho monster movie, this is probably something of a surprise), but a shower of meteorites does fall to Earth.

It just so happens that in charge of the scientific expedition that hikes off to examine the largest of the fallen meteorites is Naoko’s friend and possible suitor (things are never allowed to get particularly soppy in these movies), Professor Murai (Hiroshi Koizumi). Murai is startled by the size of the rock, and also the weird electromagnetic anomalies that periodically manifest around it.

Also relevant to the story is Naoko’s brother, police detective Shindo (Yosuke Natsuki), who is given the important but strangely under-resourced job of protecting Princess Selina (Akiko Wakabayashi), heir apparent to the remote Himalayan kingdom of Selgina. The cultural distinctiveness of the Selginan people is amply established by the fact that the ruff remains an important part of their national dress, to the point where they resemble an entire country of birds who’ve swallowed plates. It seems that the former king has recently been assassinated in a communist plot, and the killers now have Selina in their sights. Chief assassin Malmess (Hisaya Ito) signifies his evilness by always wearing sinister dark glasses, which is an odd combination when paired with his ruff. But I digress.

The assassins succeed in blowing up Selina’s plane (bits of charred neckwear flutter down over many square miles), little suspecting she jumped out at the last minute, guided by a disembodied voice. Soon enough she resurfaces as a mysterious prophet, claiming to come from Venus (or Mars, depending on which version you’re watching), with no memory of her former terrestrial life.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on, but not much sign of any monsters so far. This changes (sort of) when Shindo and Naoko pause to watch TV, settling on what seems to be a sort of 60s Japanese version of the Michael MacIntyre show (God knows why). Making an appearance, for no adequately explained reason, are the Shobijin fairies, who provide an update on what Mothra’s been up to (in short, not much: just lying around being worshipped by the natives of his island – Mothra is male in this movie).

The plot does start to pick up pace now, as Selina the prophetess’ various predictions of disaster start to come true: tourists at the volcano Mount Aso are alarmed by the emergence of the giant pterodactyl Rodan, who has been hibernating in the crater, while her prophecy of doom for one particular ship comes to pass when Godzilla surfaces and nukes it. Unfortunately the only people who seem to pay her any attention are the Shobijin, who were due to go back to Infant Island on that ship and wisely changed their travel arrangements.

Worst of all, the meteorite cracks open and disgorges a golden, three-headed dragon, which Selina announces is called Ghidorah. It appears that, thousands of years before, Ghidorah devastated the ancient and advanced civilisation of Venus (or Mars), and Selina has actually been possessed by the spirit of one of the survivors who fled to Earth (the English dub, at least, is really not very clear on this point). Anyway, Ghidorah is now all set to lay waste to earthly civilisation as well – or at least that part of it not already flattened by some playful tussling between Godzilla and Rodan which is already in progress.

The reaction of the Japanese authorities does not really inspire confidence, and so our heroes propose an alternative to the committee in charge of Monster Crisis Response – given that Mothra managed to halt Godzilla’s last rampage (in Mothra Vs Godzilla), could the Shobijin persuade him to tackle Ghidorah as well? The fairies are dubious, given the new Mothra is still young and larval. It will take all three of Earth’s monsters to deal with the menace of Ghidorah – always assuming that Godzilla and Rodan can be persuaded to play ball…

Toho’s shared world of monster movies had got under way earlier the same year with Mothra Vs Godzilla, but in many ways this is the film that established the template for the Japanese monster movie as it is generally known today: freewheeling monster wrestling action in the background, a rather preposterous B-movie plot going on in the foreground, some bonkers sci-fi and fantasy ideas incorporated into the plot, marginal turns from the human cast, and so on. To be honest, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster deviates from this last point a little, as Malmess’ gang of hired killers give notably terrible performances even by the standards of a Godzilla movie. Possibly making up for this is the presence of a genuinely great movie actor, in the form of Takashi Shimura, whose celluloid immortality was assured by his appearances as Kambei in Seven Samurai and the central character in Ikiru. This is technically Shimura’s fourth appearance in the Godzilla series, having played one character in the first two films and a different one in Mothra – here he is someone else again, playing a brain specialist who wanders about with the heroes through the second half of the film. It’s hardly demanding for a performer of his calibre but he seems to be enjoying himself.

The film is probably more notable for the way it handles its monster characters, anyway. The big innovation, obviously, is the creation of Ghidorah, who would go on to appear in a pile of other movies and could make a decent claim to be Godzilla’s greatest enemy (Mothra’s too, come to that). I have to confess that – and here we go down the rabbit hole – I’ve always found Ghidorah to be a rather two-dimensional character, certainly compared to other monsters like Mothra and Mechagodzilla. It’s a striking design but the concept of the character – evil space dragon! – isn’t as engaging as many of the other Toho kaiju.

The other, less obvious innovation comes in the way that the film genuinely does start to treat its monster characters as characters. The original movie treats Godzilla as an implacable force of nature, not something with a personality that could potentially be reasoned with; here there is a scene in which Mothra, Godzilla and Rodan have an actual conversation (sadly, we only hear the Shobijin’s translation of it, but apparently Godzilla has a bit of a foul mouth) – it’s a relatively short step from here to the scene in Godzilla Vs Gigan with Godzilla and Anguirus talking to each other by speech bubbles. Perhaps this also explains why the film also displays the signs of the jokey tone first introduced in King Kong Vs Godzilla, which would become more and more prevalent as the series went on.

For the most part, though, this is a film which takes itself just seriously enough to be fun, without feeling ridiculous, with plenty of incidental pleasures to go with the grandiose kitsch of the monster battles. If you were going to show a kaiju movie to Hollywood in the hope they would really understand the attraction of the genre, then this might very well be the one. Always assuming someone hasn’t already done so – Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah have been working for a big American studio recently, after all, and the trailer for their new movie is already running in theatres. We can only hope it is quite as charmingly entertaining as their first film together.

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When I was a student, many years ago, one of the things that people did on a Saturday night was go to the weekly midnight screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. It became almost like a regular event for many of us – once every couple of months, we would go out for a few drinks and then turn up at the Odeon in Hull just as the normal screenings were letting out. At one point, as if to emphasise the slightly cultish nature of the event, there was something of a vogue for wearing the suits and dark glasses. This went on for literally years, to the point at which the actual prints of the film started wearing out. The film was originally released in the UK at the beginning of 1993 and was still enjoying this odd afterlife two or three years later, even occasionally resurfacing for a more conventional run. This was mostly due to the unique circumstances of this film, which was banned on video in the UK for most of this time, but such a long cinema run is still unusual. However, when it comes to violent ultra-masculine action thrillers that enjoyed unusually protracted UK cinema visits, then the film for you is undoubtedly Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 film The Wild Bunch, which ran in one London picture house for seven years.

The movie opens with a group of men in US Army uniform riding into a small town in southern Texas. The year is not specified but one can infer it is around 1913. As the group arrive at a railroad office, it soon becomes apparent they are not soldiers but thieves, led by the ruthless outlaw Pike (William Holden), along with his lieutenant Dutch (Ernest Borgnine). But the gang’s plan to rob the railroad payroll seems to be going awry, for their appearance has been anticipated: lying in wait for them on top of the building across the way are a motley group of bounty hunters, led by Thornton (Robert Ryan) – a former associate of Pike’s who has been offered early release from prison in exchange for his assistance in hunting down his former friend.

After a long, tense build-up, the thieves attempt to make their escape, and a full-scale gun battle erupts between them and the bounty hunters, with many members of the local town caught in the crossfire and casually gunned down. Pike, Dutch, and several of the other gang members manage to shoot their way out of town and escape, leaving ugly scenes in their wake as the hunters squabble over the spoils and pick over the corpses.

However, Pike and the gang are disgusted to discover the silver they planned to steal has been replaced by steel washers, and Pike’s authority over the group is challenged. He manages to hold them together and they head down into Mexico to plan their next movie. Pike is aware that time is running out for men like them, and maybe the chaotic situation south of the border will throw up some opportunities. So it initially proves, as a tenuous deal is struck with a corrupt general, to steal arms for him from the US government. But Thornton and his posse have not given up, and a member of the gang has his own reasons for opposing the general. Pike and the others find themselves having to choose between personal loyalty, and self-interest.

The Wild Bunch showed up at the UPP in Oxford recently as the finale of their classic western strand – an entirely appropriate choice, given it is generally accepted to be one of the last of the truly great western movies. Showing just the previous week was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which I went to see with a friend – she thoroughly enjoyed it and asked if there were any other ‘cowboy films’ coming on. I said yes, but probably should have made it clear that this was a slightly different kind of film in its tone and outlook.

That said, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch have much more in common than you might initially think, even considering they’re both westerns (and thus naturally share a kind of generic resemblance). Both films are essentially concerned with the death of the old west, as it is generally conceived, and feature characters who are increasingly aware that the world around them is changing. Pike and his comrades see automobiles and machine-guns starting to appear around them; there is even talk of aeroplanes. There are a number of images and plot elements shared by both films as well – the pursuit of the main characters by hired killers (although in this case the leader of the posse is a more complex, sympathetic figure), the flight from the USA to another country, the climactic, bloody encounter with the army.

Nevertheless, this is a textbook example of how two films in the same genre can take similar material and produce totally different results. Writing about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid recently, I said that there’s a sense in which it almost doesn’t feel quite like a western at all – it’s a charming, romantic film that includes a lot of western iconography, but the focus is wholly on the central trio rather than the milieu in which they live. The Wild Bunch almost feels like a riposte to the other movie, an attempt to set the record straight – the real-life Sundance Kid was actually part of a gang known as the Wild Bunch, who were far from the inoffensive rogues beloved of most Hollywood depictions.

If there is any romanticism in this movie, it is of a very hard-edged kind. Pike, Dutch and the others are visibly ageing, grizzled and weather-beaten by their hard lives – Pike is half-crippled by an old wound, for instance. Charming they are not. Unlike Redford and Newman, this gang are ruthless killers when the situation demands it, showing little remorse for their actions – Pike has no qualms about finishing off one member of the gang who is too badly wounded to accompany them in their escape. You might therefore wonder how they can have any demand on the audience’s sympathy – shouldn’t everyone just be rooting for Thornton all the way through?

Well, Thornton himself comes across as an ambivalent, conflicted figure throughout, disgusted by the trash and scum he’s been given to lead. ‘What kind of man are we after?’ asks one of the bounty hunters, referring to Pike. ‘The best,’ Thornton curtly responds. Ryan’s performance makes it clear that Thornton hates himself for going after his former friend, and is only doing it to escape prison and the accompanying torture. Through his regard for Pike, we gain some ourselves.

And there is, of course, the fact that while the gang themselves may be crude, violent, ruthless men, Peckinpah still surrounds them with other characters who are appreciably worse. They live by some kind of code of honour, look out for each other, respect each other as men. And as the film goes on and we share in their small victories and the accompanying camaraderie, we do come to respect and care about them ourselves, even though they are obviously doomed.

When that doom eventually arrives, it is in the extraordinary climax of the film. Watching it again, you can’t help wondering about the extent to which Peckinpah is suggesting that these men are knowingly going to their deaths, opting to go out guns blazing. Is this really about their personal code of loyalty, or just a convenient pretext to cover a breathtaking outburst of nihilistic violence? At one point there’s a temporary lull in the slaughter and it looks like the gang may be able to get away with their lives – but Pike seems to make a deliberate choice to provoke a further surge of killing, this one uncontrollable. The director keeps it ambiguous. What is certain is that the Wild Bunch don’t get the gentle, sepia-toned freeze-frame-and-pull-back accorded to Butch and Sundance: they die bloody, in full view of the camera, but by no means alone.

You could probably argue that the final battle of The Wild Bunch was the shot heard round the world, in terms of finally extinguishing whatever innocence the western had left once Sergio Leone had his hands on it (well, more like several hundred shots heard round the world). Even today it is a remarkably intense nearly-five-minute sequence, a crescendo of blood as everyone involved seems to lose their reason and becomes fixated on killing anything that moves. The result is a kind of reflexive spasm of violence, made unforgettable by Peckinpah’s use of fast cutting, slow motion, and large quantities of blood squibs. Apparently the director’s intention was to shock the audience and confront them with the realities of violence, and he was concerned that viewers actually found it cathartic. Even today it is hard to decide which is really the case.

This kind of careful ambiguity extends through the movie, affecting how we view the characters’ motivations and identities. The result is a kind of studied amorality, which – when combined with the staggeringly violent sequences that bookend the film – could make it possible to dismiss the film as something technically competent, but with little to say for itself. I think this would be to do it a disservice. One of Peckinpah’s more striking choices is the sheer number of cutaways to women and children observing the main action of the film. They are there watching the gang ride in, they are present at the various villages they visit, they are taking cover during the final massacre, and so on. It looks like Peckinpah is making a point about the contrast between the men who are his main characters and the innocent lives damaged by their violence – but are they really so innocent? The playing children watching the gang’s arrival turn out to be torturing animals, while in the midst of the final battle, Pike is shot twice: first by a woman, then by a child. Whether you interpret this as representing masculine violence contaminating everyone exposed to it, or simply a sign that there is really no such thing as innocence, it suggests that Peckinpah did have moral ideas he wanted to express – just not very comforting ones.

Of course, you can interpret The Wild Bunch in terms of its presentation of violence and moral theme, or simply enjoy it as a terrific, hard-edged western. It has the epic scenery and rousing soundtrack you would expect of the best of the genre, and it really is about the classic themes of the genre – what it means to live as a man, in this particular setting. It’s still a challenging film to watch, but a challenge which it’s well worth meeting.

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Once more unto the Ultimate Picture Palace (if this keeps up I shall have to consider buying yet another cinema membership card), where they are currently showing a season of classic westerns (and why not). To be honest with you, the collection of films on offer is a bit of a mixed bag – they have The Searchers, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and The Wild Bunch, which obviously all qualify, but also Rio Bravo – I mean, it’s okay, but I prefer the John Carpenter semi-remake – and The Last Movie, which in addition to being fairly obscure also features in a book entitled The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. Also on the list is George Roy Hill’s 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – now, this I would say was an indisputably classic movie, one of my personal favourites, but a classic western?

On paper it looks like a fairly standard example of the genre. The film is set, we are invited to infer, in the very last years of the 19th century, with the charming and ingenious Butch (Paul Newman) and the taciturn but deadly Kid (Robert Redford) well-established as outlaw robbers of banks and trains, and happily ensconced in a not-quite-love-triangle with schoolteacher Etta Place (Katharine Ross). They are local celebrities, sort of, generally trying to avoid hurting people in the pursuit of their activities. The sun shines, the scenery is beautiful; Butch and Sundance barely seem to have a care in the world.

But the wheels of progress crush everyone, and what the duo fail to fully appreciate until too late is that their world is vanishing. They are virtually the last of their kind, and one irate businessman determines to complete the eradication of the old-west outlaw by hiring a crack posse of expert hunters and killers to chase them down and finish their careers permanently. It’s a nasty shock for the carefree duo, who only manage to escape through a desperate gamble and sheer good fortune. Butch and Sundance resolve to take the heat off by travelling down to Bolivia, where there are still opportunities for the old-fashioned banditry they love, and better days return – but only for a while…

Well, it’s always a pleasure to see a film like this back on the big screen, especially given the thick-headed TV edit currently in circulation. It’s actually a little discombobulating to realise that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, for it feels as fresh and engaging as it ever did (I guess it must: the UPP is also currently showing The Old Man and the Gun, in which a rather more grizzled Redford bids his adieu to the screen playing a role not a million miles away from the Sundance Kid). I first saw this film at a very early age and have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it since; my appreciation for it has done nothing but grow, and it is on the list of those films which seem to me to be virtually perfect.

But is it strictly speaking a classic western? It might sound like an absurd question. I suppose it boils down to how you define the western as a genre – if you consider it to be any film predominantly set on the American frontier in the nineteenth century, then naturally it qualifies. Some people would be more rigorous and suggest that a classic western must deal with themes of honour, loyalty, individualism, perhaps even rugged masculinity. These are the same people inclined to dismiss Sergio Leone’s films as superficial nihilism, for all their critical and commercial success.

Certainly you could argue that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid often feels much more like a comedy-drama buddy movie, as the title duo banter and squabble their way through the movie; part of its charm is that it is genuinely and consistently funny throughout. The soundtrack, provided by Burt Bacharach, is also hardly the stuff of a classic cowboy movie. Real purists might also take issue with the fact that the closing stretch of the film is set in South America, and the film did apparently struggle to get financed for a while as studio bosses objected to the fact that the heroes essentially spend much of the movie running away (‘John Wayne don’t run away,’ was the comment of one executive).

I think this is to miss the point of the film, which is essentially about the classic cowboy in retreat. It is, obviously, a deeply nostalgic film – there’s probably an interesting discussion to be had about the place of nostalgia within the western genre – fully aware of a world slipping away. The appearance of modern bank vaults and bicycles in the old west are just signs that things are changing on a deeper level, and there is no place for outlaws any more. The film is about the death of this romantic world, and due to the sheer charisma of Redford and Newman, you feel its loss keenly no matter how irrational this is.

One of the most impressive things about William Goldman’s script is the way in which the tone of the film gradually but imperceptibly grows darker as it progresses – Butch and Sundance are never short of a wisecrack or put-down, even in the midst of their final encounter with the Bolivian army, but their exploits become progressively grittier and more violent as the film approaches its end. As bandits, they are presented as committing almost victimless crimes – it is their attempt at going straight that leads to them becoming killers. You could probably view the whole movie as a metaphor for the western genre’s loss of innocence – it opens with footage from a silent movie from the genre, and grows progressively darker and more ‘realistic’, as I’ve mentioned. The bodies of the Bolivian bandits killed by the duo tumble in slow motion very much like something from a Sam Peckinpah film, which the film in some ways begins to resemble. Is it stretching a point to suggest that, by killing off the lead characters at the end, this film is an example of the western anticipating its own imminent demise, in its traditional form at least?

We should also perhaps remember that this film came out in 1969, and there are surely echoes of the sunlit days of the summer of love in the film’s lighter moments. Butch and Sundance are obviously anti-establishment figures, not actively seeking to harm anyone, just to carry on the relatively carefree existence they enjoy – they are rogues rather than villains. Perhaps by the very end of the 60s it was already becoming apparent that the dreams of the counter-culture were part of a world as doomed to pass as that of the two outlaws, and this is why young audiences responded so strongly to the bittersweet mood of the film and the poignancy of its conclusion: we are spared the gory details, left with an image of our heroes frozen in a sepia-toned past, drifting off into the distance. This film is a joy, while never forgetting that all things must pass – but so far, at least, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid itself seems to be timeless.

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‘Will you allow me to come to your home and, in your presence, anaesthetise your wife, so we will know once and for all whether she is real or an illusion?’

You have to love a line of dialogue like that. In fact, if I had come across it in one of those lists of great movie quotes, I like to think I would at once have started actively seeking out the movie from which it came. In this case, the line comes from the 1964 movie Unearthly Stranger, directed by John Krish. This is supposedly a highly-meritorious British B-movie, but the fact that I’d never heard of it until only a few days ago rather suggests to me it is in fact fairly obscure, as these things go. Still, now I know if it, I have seen it, and if my mind has not been blown then it has certainly been breathed upon quite energetically.

unearthly-stranger-

 

The story gets underway with our hero, Mark Davidson (John Neville), running across London at night, clearly in a bit of a tizzy. There is a lot of running. One might even say there is an inordinate amount of running, especially when you consider this film is well shy of 90 minutes in length. I might even be moved to suggest that the script for the rest of the film had yet to be finished when they started filming, and so they just kept Neville running as a means of filling the time. Well, anyway, our man eventually arrives at his workplace, the Royal Society for Space Boffinry, where he sits down with a reel-to-reel tape recorder to narrate the rest of the movie, which happens in flashback (it’s a well-worn old device, but it has a certain charm).

Well, it seems that the space boffins are hard at work coming up with a method of interstellar travel through means of willpower alone. This depends upon coming up with a formula to unlock the hidden potential of the human brain, also known as TP-91 (not that any of the details sound remotely convincing or have any particular bearing on the plot). It transpires that Davidson’s old boss, Professor Munro (Warren Mitchell), worked out part of the solution before retiring to his office – only to be discovered dead a few moments later!

‘It was as though there was an explosion inside his brain,’ reports the project’s security officer, Clarke (Patrick Newell). Davidson, who was away on holiday in Switzerland at the time, is the new boss, and Clarke fills him in on some disquieting details – parallel projects into brain-powered space travel are underway in America and the USSR, but they too have been hampered by the mysterious deaths of key researchers, all of them with the same symptoms of exploding brains. Cripes! Could foul play be afoot?

Davidson lets himself get a bit paranoid and the film heads off down some curious blind alleys for a bit – Munro’s body has disappeared, and it seems there were traces in his body of a poison only otherwise found in returning space capsules – before settling on the more fruitful topic of Davidson’s relationship with his new wife Julie (Gabriella Licudi), whom he met during his recent holiday. ‘Is your wife an alien?’ puffs Clarke (meaning, not British) before embarking on the usual security checks. Normally this would count as unforgivably obvious writing, but in a film like this one it’s all par for the course. Soon enough Davidson is unsettled to discover his wife sleeps with her eyes open and has no pulse, while his colleague Professor Lancaster (Philip Stone) spots her taking the casserole out of the oven without using gloves.

Yes, there’s something about Julie, and it comes as no surprise when she fails her security check on account of not actually having existed until a few weeks ago. By this point the audience has already enjoyed a schlocky-but-eerie sequence in which she wanders down the high street, upsetting small babies with her subliminally extra-terrestrial presence, scaring off whole crowds of schoolchildren, and so on. However, she is a sensitive soul and this moves her to tears: the tears appear to burn the skin of her face, in a nicely bizarre touch. But what is her mission here on Earth? And could her burgeoning feelings for her new husband get in the way…?

As you may have gathered, with Unearthly Stranger we are in the realm of the dingbat pastiche of either Quatermass or Village of the Damned, but it’s still oddly watchable stuff. The film-makers get top marks for managing to make a proper science fiction film without the need to include any special effects at all (always a neat trick), while for a modern audience the film’s casting certainly has cult credibility: these days Neville is best remembered for playing the title role in Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen as well as the Well-Manicured Man in The X Files, while Philip Stone was Jack Nicholson’s predecessor in The Shining, and Patrick Newell was Mother in the final season of The Avengers. Jean Marsh, an actress whose genre pedigree stretches from the original Twilight Zone to Mark Gatiss’ Crooked House, also appears in a small but crucial role. (Warren Mitchell manages to land fifth billing despite being in only one scene.) All of these actors, by the way, uphold the proud British tradition of doing your best even when you’re saddled with some rather dodgy material.

I am tempted to say that once you get past the deeply suspect premise of scientists seriously engaged upon research into some form of psychic teleportation, this is not too bad, as paranoid SF B-movies go. However, watching it today what strikes you again and again is the sense that this film was made exclusively by, about, and for white men in their late thirties:  even though the film appears to be about the alien infiltration of Earth society by the main female character (shades of Under the Skin), Julie almost always feels like the object of other characters’ activity and attention rather than someone with any real agency. And it is telling that she feels like not so much an alien disguised as a woman as an alien disguised as a housewife – note how she is rumbled by her peculiar behaviour when getting dinner out of the oven.

Of course, there is a degree of irony involved here – Neville’s sneering dismissal of what he sees as the superstitious nature of another character is setting up the climactic twist of the film – but in the end the gender politics of Unearthly Stranger, perhaps its most striking element beyond the weirdness of its SF plot, are just a bit too odd and uncomfortable for a modern viewer. The fact that it is hardly flattering, in the end, to its male characters doesn’t entirely make up for the fact that it seems perilously close to misogyny in its presentation of women. Then again, the film hasn’t exactly aged well in any other respect, so it’s not a tremendous surprise that this aspect is problematic too. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting little film if you like this sort of thing.

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A bit over ten years ago I had the great good fortune to spend a year or so living in Japan. Naturally, there are lots of unexpected things that arise out of this kind of experience, things you never would have expected: and one of the realisations which it brought to me was how rarely you hear the music of the Beatles in the course of everyday life in the UK. In Japan, if you sit down for a toasted sandwich in a cafe, there’s a very good chance you’ll be doing it to a soundtrack from Rubber Soul or The White Album – you hear their songs everywhere and anywhere. (John Lennon is virtually the only foreigner to be treated like an honorary Japanese person, for possibly-obvious reasons, while there is a chain of shops named Yellow Submarine.)

Over here, though, not so much, especially when you consider the extent to which the Beatles have written themselves into the fabric of our popular culture. Everyone knows a couple of dozen Beatles songs in some detail, but nobody under fifty can remember where that knowledge came from, I suspect: it’s a strange kind of cultural osmosis, to which each new generation is subjected. Judging from the number of parents bringing quite small kids to a 50th-anniversary revival of Yellow Submarine which I rolled up to the other day, I may have seen the process in action.

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Directed by George Dunning, Yellow Submarine, I probably don’t need to tell you, was the Fab Four’s third movie, and one with which they had fairly minimal involvement, not least because this is a full-length animation featuring a dozen or so songs from the lads. Things get underway with a vision of Pepperland, a paradise of freedom, enlightenment, and music, where all is peace and harmony – at least, until the place is heinously assaulted by the implacably negative Blue Meanies, a bunch of killjoys with a rather eccentric arsenal of apple-bonkers, anti-music missiles, snapping Turks and a terrible flying glove.

Pepperland seems certain to fall to the forces of glumness, and so the mayor packs off the crusty sailor Old Fred (voiced by Lance Percival) to fetch help, putting him in command of, well, a yellow submarine, which can fly. Of course. Old Fred’s quest winds up leading him to late-sixties Liverpool, where he encounters first Ringo (voiced by Paul Angelis), and then the other three Beatles – John (John Clive), Paul (Geoffrey Hughes), and George (mostly an uncredited Peter Batten, who departed the production quite rapidly when it was discovered he was wanted for desertion from the British army). With the lads on board, the yellow submarine sets course back to Pepperland, but a strange voyage it will prove to be…

I’m really in two minds when it comes to the plot of Yellow Submarine – on the one hand, there is something absolutely sound and perhaps even mythic about the basic structure of the quest for help against invaders. But on the other, I can’t help thinking that this isn’t a musical film in the conventional sense – by which I mean, it’s not a narrative in which the songs serve to establish or develop character, and comment on the plot. Rather, it seems like a collection of songs around which a very loose storyline has been written, with animated sequences used to illustrate the tunes. Comparisons with Fantasia (another non-narrative musical anthology) seem to me to be quite apt.

It is customary to praise the film for the ceaseless psychedelic invention of its visuals, but if you think about it, what else were they supposed to do? Given the job of animating an accompaniment to the song Yellow Submarine, what would you do? You’d look at the lyrics and try to discern some underlying metaphor or subtext to the song. And I suspect you’d find that this really is just a piece of oompah-oompah silliness about some people living in an ochre-hued submersible. The same seems to be true of a lot of the other songs here – I’m reminded of a John Lennon quote, about Hey Bulldog in particular, suggesting it is ‘a good-sounding record that means nothing.’ In a similar way you could probably argue that Yellow Submarine is a visually-striking film that has no particular depth to it.

Then again, the late 60s were littered with good-looking cultural artefacts that are a bit cryptic, to say the least, at first glance – you could probably add The Prisoner and 2001: A Space Odyssey to the same list. And the best sequences of animation in Yellow Submarine are certainly distinctive and reasonably inventive, even if the animators seem to be struggling with the fact that some of the songs don’t really have any particular meaning. (The film’s sequence accompanying Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – and I have to say that while I like the Beatles’ rendition, it’s William Shatner’s which is truly definitive for me – shies away from actual visions of newspaper taxis and marshmallow pies in favour of rotoscoped ballroom dancing.) By the far the most effective segment of the film, if you ask me, is that accompanying Eleanor Rigby, a song which genuinely seems to be about something, and I think this is not a coincidence.

That said, the film’s producer Al Brodax was quite cynical about the creative process involved: the Beatles were under contract to produce four brand new songs for the film, and ended up only giving Brodax ones which they didn’t think were particularly good, saving the better ones for other projects (or so he suggested). I have to say this does remind me of the apparent modus operandi of the Monty Python collective, who would sell any sketches that didn’t pass their own quality control process to The Two Ronnies – but then comparing the Pythons and the Beatles is something of a cliché, for all that some of the animation here looks decidedly Gilliamesque, and the surreal humour of the film also not a million miles away. (Much of the puns and wordplay in the script were apparently courtesy of an uncredited Roger McGough.)

One is tempted to suggest the whole film could almost be seen as an exercise in the meeting of contractual obligations – the band themselves turning in some rather variable tunes (It’s Only A Northern Song is about as close to forgettable as the Beatles ever produced) and only turning up in person very briefly at the end. (It has to be said that the actors do a pretty decent job of presenting the Beatles as they are, or were, popularly received – John the sarky rebel, Ringo the clown, George the mystic, Paul the nice guy of ambiguous mortality.) For all of its inventiveness, there are still moments when the film is clearly being rather thrifty – seconds go by in front of static images, while the animation for the second half of the Nowhere Man sequence is plainly pretty much that of the first half, only run in reverse.

And yet, and yet, and yet. You sit there and think this film has not aged well, and its roots as a quaint piece of pop-art psychedelia are clearly showing, and the plot is not up to much – but then you listen to the string arrangement of Eleanor Rigby, or the guitar solo of Nowhere Man, or the piano part of Hey Bulldog, or the crescendo from A Day in the Life, and it lifts you up and makes you smile and reminds you of just why the music of the Beatles is woven into all of our lives so indelibly. No-one else in music has ever done so much, so quickly, so well. If ever a band was touched by genius, it was these boys, and for that I am more than happy to forgive them, and this movie, a lot.

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In the early 1960s the American actor Richard Harrison was living in Italy and had carved out a bit of a niche for himself starring in movies there, including the very first of what are now known as spaghetti westerns. The makers of a new movie in that genre approached Harrison with a view to his appearing in it, but not having enjoyed his previous experience, the actor declined. So the director asked him to recommend another actor who could conceivably carry a new kind of western. Harrison, a veteran performer with over 120 films to his credit, nowadays wryly comments that his response may have constituted his single greatest contribution to cinema, both as an industry and an art form.

The director was Sergio Leone, the film was A Fistful of Dollars (Italian title Per un pugno di dollari, while – somewhat curiously – the on-screen title card omits the indefinite article), and the eventual star was Clint Eastwood, at that point best-known as the star of TV western Rawhide. These days A Fistful of Dollars is famous as the film which brought both Leone and the spaghetti western subgenre to international attention, while Eastwood has gone on to have the most distinguished of careers as a film-maker – even to the point where his fame and success as a director surpasses that of his acting work. It all started here, in an unauthorised and uncredited remake of the Japanese jidaigeki movie Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa and Toho duly sued, to which Leone’s response was that Yojimbo itself was a derivative work, ultimately drawn from an Italian commedia dell’arte play. But he still settled out of court in the end, with Kurosawa claiming he earned more from Fistful than he did from his own film).

The plot of A Fistful of Dollars will certainly seem very familiar to anyone who has seen the Kurosawa film. A taciturn stranger (famously known as the Man with No Name, but a minor character in this film repeatedly calls him ‘Joe’) arrives in a desolate town in Mexico to find it moribund, paralysed by a struggle between rival gangs of smugglers and bandits – the Rojos and the Baxters. The local cantina is almost deserted, and the only person doing good business is the man who makes the coffins.

But the stranger sees an opportunity to maybe make a little money, for he is a lethally skilled gunfighter and quite prepared to play both sides off against each other in pursuit of a bigger payday. But Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte), one of the Rojo brothers, is also a dangerously intelligent killer, and the stranger may not find his scheme as straightforward to implement as he first thinks…

I have to say that Sergio Leone was really trying it on when he tried to assert that A Fistful of Dollars is not a fairly obvious remake of Yojimbo. There are a few tweaks to the storyline early on – a visit from a government inspector is replaced by a double-cross involving some stolen gold – but in many places this is very nearly a shot-for-shot recreation of the Japanese film, dramatically at least.

Looking slightly beneath the surface, things are somewhat different. A Fistful of Dollars is a much ‘straighter’ movie than its precursor, which – in its early stages at least – functions as a kind of black comedy. Fistful is by no means po-faced, but it is a particularly cynical kind of humour, articulated many in terms of one-liners from Eastwood’s character. But then the film as whole feels like it is operating on a more limited, superficial level.

It has many of the same strengths as the Kurosawa film, most notably the pairing of Eastwood and Volonte as protagonist and antagonist. (In an attempt to pitch the movie to xenophobic American markets, many of those involved are credited under somewhat unlikely American pseudonyms – Leone’s original credit was as ‘Bob Robertson’, Volonte ‘John Wells’, Mario Brega ‘Richard Stuysevant’, and so on. I’m not sure how convincing this would have been, even at the time.) It doesn’t quite manage the beautiful simplicity of Yojimbo‘s swordsman-versus-gunfighter finale, but negotiates around this with reasonable elegance.

However, Yojimbo, like most of Kurosawa’s films, is a study of character and the world, as well as being an entertaining narrative. Kurosawa loved working with Toshiro Mifune because, the director said, he was the most expressive actor he had ever come across. It seems Leone loved working with Eastwood in the same way, but for diametrically opposite reasons – he saw the actor as an inscrutable mask, observing that he had two basic expressions: hat on or hat off. (Leone was, of course, joking: he was the first, after all, to recognise Eastwood’s ability to shift, almost imperceptibly, from neutral-featured juvenile lead to flinty-eyed spectre of annihilation, as he does most famously in the ‘My mule don’t like people laughing at him’ sequence.)

A Fistful of Dollars seems largely to have been conceived in visual terms. Most of the dialogue doesn’t go far beyond ‘Ey, gringo’ cliches, and the plot is, as we have discussed, obviously derivative. What makes it distinctive is the big set piece moments: rapid intercutting between wide shots and huge close-ups of silent actors, their faces filling the screen as the trumpets of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack soar above the action. This is a director’s movie, a cinematographer’s movie, perhaps above all an editor’s movie.

It’s perhaps inevitable that the film feels a little superficial as a result (although the constraints of the production – it was filmed ‘as silent’ with dialogue and sound added later – may also have had an effect). Leone doesn’t seem particularly interested in making any specific point, with the result that the film just feels like a very violent melodrama, about and punctuated by acts of cruelty and murder, populated by thin (maybe ‘archetypal’ would be a better way of putting it) characters. A key moment in the plot comes when the stranger risks himself to help a family torn apart by the Rojos – in Yojimbo, Mifune’s performance effectively foreshadows this moment of hazard, but here it just seems rather out-of-character for Eastwood.

Nevertheless, on its own terms this is a highly accomplished film, and very entertaining too. All the intelligence and charisma that Eastwood would show throughout his acting career is on display; the same is true of the artistry and skill of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. Opinion may still be somewhat divided as to the place of A Fistful of Dollars in the history of the western – is it a bold new take on, or perversion of the genre? – but it is still a great movie.

 

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