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Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

Mel Brooks’ 1967 movie The Producers opens in the appropriately seedy offices of seedy theatrical impresario Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel): once a successful producer, his recent shows have all been flops and he has been reduced to romancing little old ladies into parting with their money in order to keep himself afloat (‘romancing’ may be putting too fine a point on it: for frail-looking little old ladies, they turn out to be improbably libidinous).

Stumbling into the midst of this geriatric carnality comes the hapless figure of drab accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder); this is apparently an intentional reference to Ulysses, unlikely as that sounds. Bloom has been sent to do Bialystock’s books, and discovers that an accidental bit of graft has occurred: the producer raised more money than he needed in order to mount his last show, and pocketed the excess. Normally this would be an offence, but as the show was a huge flop, none of the backers are expecting to get their money back anyway. Bloom idly observes that an unprincipled producer could probably make more money from a massive flop than a genuine hit, if the book-keeping were creative enough…

This seed of corruption falls into the fertile mulch of Max Bialystock’s brain and instantly takes root. Persuading Bloom to assist him, he sets about mounting the worst play it is in his power to stage, meanwhile raising a vastly excessive budget from private investors in return for selling the profits from the show two-and-a-half-thousand times over. But what kind of show could be the sure-fire disaster the scheme warrants?

They settle upon a script entitled Springtime for Hitler, a musical comedy written by a deranged Nazi immigrant named Franz (Kenneth Mars) which sets out to show the world ‘the real Hitler… the Hitler with a song in his heart’. Directorial duties are assigned to Roger de Bris (Christopher Hewitt), a gay transvestite, while the starring role is given to a drug-addled beatnik named Lorenzo St DuBois (aka LSD), played by Dick Shawn. The stage is (hopefully) set for a disaster of colossal proportions – what could possibly go right…?

There’s a relentless ferocity about the single-minded way in which The Producers goes about getting its laughs, something which is perhaps mirrored by Zero Mostel’s uninhibited performance as Max: you could describe the film as a black comedy, a farce, or a satire, but one suspects that Mel Brooks really wasn’t thinking in these terms: he just wanted to get the audience laughing.

There’s a kind of artlessness about some aspects of the film, which perhaps arises from this. It begins with a lengthy, and really quite talky sequence set just in the office, which (once all the old ladies have been satisfied) boils down to a two-hander between Mostel and Wilder (Wilder seems somewhat subdued, and is definitely playing second banana throughout the film). Eventually it opens out and becomes more cinematic, but the feel of something with its origins in vaudeville persists: there’s something inherently theatrical about the story, after all.

The heart of the film is the opening number of Springtime for Hitler, which in addition to being a brilliant piece of black comedy is a spot-on parody of Broadway excesses: dancing SS officers and goose-stepping showgirls, performing a genuinely funny show tune. The Producers deserves its reputation for this sequence alone, but it hits a standard which the rest of the film really struggles to meet.

Doing jokes about Nazis has probably lost most of its shock value for a modern audience, anyway; this is one of the things that dates the film. What is likely to make the film slightly uncomfortable viewing for anyone discovering it these days is the cheery way in which it treats gay men and transvestites as figures of fun, and the manner in which Max’s new Swedish secretary (Lee Meredith) is blatantly objectified. In this sense at least, The Producers is actually coming from somewhere quite reactionary – the film was made in the late 1960s, but elements of then-contemporary youth culture and counter-culture are only referenced in order to be mocked.

This doesn’t stop it being amusing throughout, and often unexpectedly clever: you could even read the film as a slightly oblique examination of what it means to produce ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art; the central joke of the film is that it’s about two men in search of a flop who accidentally end up producing an enormous hit. Good art is not produced by accident, or so everyone assumes; that it happens here is the driver of the plot and the source of the humour in the film’s third act.

The trap that Max and Leo seem to fall into is that rather than simply producing something bad, they end up staging a play which enters the mythical realm of being so-bad-it’s-good. Much debate has occurred over whether this is a genuine phenomenon, and if you need to possess the dreaded ironic sensibility to appreciate it. What I think is the case is that if you self-consciously set out to make something which is so-bad-it’s-good, you’re likely going to fail and just end up creating slightly tedious dross; the collected output of the Asylum and the makers of the Sharknado films constitute a considerable corpus of evidence supporting this notion. Or perhaps Max and Leo just fail to appreciate that a bad idea well executed is far less entertaining than one produced ineptly.

In any case, The Producers has earned its place in the canon of significant movies, helped, no doubt, by winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Arthur C Clarke said he never forgave Mel Brooks for beating 2001: A Space Odyssey to the same award – the fact that two such different films were in competition for the same prize, and that 2001 lost, really does make one reflect on what function the Academy Awards are supposed to be fulfilling), and the existence of a full-on stage musical (with its own subsequent film version) as well. The fact it effectively launched Mel Brooks’ movie career (which includes, as well as comedies, accomplished films from other genres like The Elephant Man and Cronenberg’s The Fly) is also obviously in its favour. So it’s an easy film to like even if it’s an inconsistent one which in many ways has not aged well.

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A now-obscure movie called The Siege was briefly the focus of some attention back in 1999 when odd behaviour amongst some of its patrons was noted: they would buy a ticket, take their seats, but then walk out as soon as the credits began. The reason? This was before the age of widespread and easy internet and they had just come to watch the trailer for George Lucas’ upcoming stellar conflict movie.

Now we are in the age of widespread and easy internet, trailers are a lot more accessible and subject to much more scrutiny than was the case in years gone by. Back then, much more of the heavy lifting when it came to promotional duties was done by the poster. We have considered in the past some of the more outlandish claims made on the posters of ambitious but low-budget exploitation movies, but few attempt the hard sell quite as ferociously as the advertising for the 1968 movie The Lost Continent:

Blood-beasts, female flesh, torture-pits, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, floating death-ship, helpless beauties, crazed kelp-monsters – sounds like a hell of a movie, doesn’t it? Or possibly just hell, depending on your taste in films. The Lost Continent (NB barely features a continent, and certainly not a lost one) was made by Michael Carreras for Hammer Films. Now, Carreras produced many of the studio’s best and most successful films, and deserves credit for that. However, as a writer and director his track record is rather less stellar, with The Lost Continent (one of two films that he wrote under a pseudonym and directed, the other being Prehistoric Women) a powerful exhibit for the prosecution’s case.

The movie opens with beat combo The Peddlers treating us to the title track, which is heavy on the Hammond organ (this forms a key element of the film’s soundtrack). We find ourselves in a strangely-hued graveyard of ships, aboard one of which a burial-at-sea is just under way: various people, some dressed as Spanish conquistadors, others in modern dress, stand around gravely.

Presiding is Captain Lansen (Eric Porter), a man who is deeply troubled by questions of how he got into this situation (there may not have been much acting required from Porter, to be honest). The film obligingly flashes back to provide some answers: Lansen’s ship, the tramp freighter Corita, is making a swift departure from Freetown in Sierra Leone, trying to dodge the customs launch in the process. Why? Well, Lansen has got sick of being the owner-operator of this leaky old tub and has taken on a lucrative but illegal cargo of highly explosive white phosphorous, with a view to selling it and the ship in Caracas and retiring on the proceeds. His more principled first officer is duly shocked.

When the ship runs into a hurricane and starts taking on water, the rest of the crew demand that Lansen turns back (white phosphorous detonates when wet, apparently), but the passengers are having none of it (the crew includes some fine actors, including Victor Maddern, Michael Ripper and Donald Sumpter, but they don’t get much to do in this film). Despite the contemporary setting, the roots of the story in a 1938 novel by Dennis Wheatley are very obvious here, as there is something rather hokey and dated about all these people sitting around the saloon of a freighter making a transatlantic crossing. Amongst them we meet a boozy con-man (Tony Beckley), a former trophy-wife on the run (Hildegard Knef), an enquiry agent in pursuit of her (Ben Carruthers), a doctor fleeing a scandal (Nigel Stock, who is briefly seen reading the Wheatley novel – about as close as the film gets to genuine wit) and his daughter (Suzanna Leigh), whom he is fiercely protective of for self-interested reasons.

None of this lot want to go back to Africa and so the crew mutiny and depart, taking one of the lifeboats; only a handful stick around, including the steward (Jimmy Hanley) and the chief engineer (James Cossins). We have commented in the past on Cossins’ tendency to be cast as pompous establishment figures; this is about as proletarian as he gets, although as the story goes on the chief engineer proves to be a man with a side-line is fierce theological rigour.

With the ship leaking, the movie attempts a tense sequence with the passengers having to shift all the explosives to somewhere less damp. It is not really very tense, to be honest, and concludes with Lansen deciding they have to abandon ship anyway. So everyone piles into a lifeboat, which is launched into something which is very obviously a medium-sized water tank.

Some occasional rowing (‘It’ll keep you fit!’ growls the captain) and arguing over the rations ensues, with everyone bemoaning their lot and the viewer possibly beginning to wonder when the crazed kelp-monsters, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, and indeed the lost continent itself are actually going to make an appearance in the movie. In the end Tony Beckley can’t take it any more and hurls himself over the side in a drunken stupor; Nigel Stock dives in to save him and is eaten by a rubber shark, but Beckley is retrieved anyway.

The lifeboat becomes entangled in thick sea-weed, which proves to be more serious than it first appears when the weed grapples onto Lansen with its thick, thorny fronds – yes, the crazed kelp-monsters have finally arrived! Another extra is eaten by the weed before the lifeboat bumps into the Corita, which has likewise been snagged by the kelp. Everyone gets back on board, which only leads one to conclude that this whole sequence has just been there to get rid of Nigel Stock.

With Stock out of the way, his daughter reveals he has been repressing her for ages and goes a bit mad as a result of her sudden freedom, chucking herself at Beckley (not keen, racked with guilt following the bit with the shark) and then Carruthers (rather more receptive). The two of them slip out onto the deck to see what happens, but any developments are forestalled by the appearance over the gunwale of a giant octopus, which proceeds to eat Carruthers and cover Leigh in green slime before it can be driven off.

There is a sense of the plot finally getting somewhere, and not before time, as the freighter pitches up in a strange weed-infested realm of wrecked ships, some of them seemingly very ancient, and rocky outcrops. (It’s still not a continent though.) Strange shapes are sighted through the mist, and then contact is made with the locals, as a young woman approaches the ship. She is played by latter-day blues singer Dana Gillespie, and has an impressive set of flotation devices. She also has a set of helium balloons strapped to her shoulders.

(Yeah, I do kind of appreciate that that last attempt at a gag is probably unacceptable in these enlightened days of 2021, and I feel duly apologetic – though clearly not to the point of actually removing it from the review. It’s not as though the film doesn’t go all out to exploit the potential of the stunning Gillespie decolletage: the poor woman is in a shirt open practically to the navel, and most of the publicity photos for this film seem to show her leaning forward while sitting on a giant plastic crab:

My mistake, it’s a giant scorpion, not a crab.)

Gillespie is being chased by Spanish conquistadors working for the Inquisition, with whom there is a brisk scrap. (All the locals wear balloons and snowshoes to let them walk around on the weed.) She reveals they are the descendants of explorers who got stuck here centuries ago and are reigned over by the tyrannical El Supremo, a child ruler under the control of a pointy-hood-wearing maniac. Clearly conflict between the newcomers and the Inquisition is on the cards, but not before they can cram in Jimmy Hanley being throttled by a giant crab and a death-struggle between the crab and a giant sea scorpion (the question of which is the worse prop is also fiercely contested).

The poster catch-line ‘A living hell that time forgot!’ accurately nails The Lost Continent as a precursor to the Trampas movies made by Amicus in the following decade (The Land That Time Forgot, etc) – but while those films occasional attain the level of Good Bad Movie, this one is (to quote the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction’s review) wholly absurd, even if the art direction is good. The Doug McClure films are unashamed pulp from start to finish: Carreras seems to think this film has an outside chance of functioning as serious drama, hence a lot of very intense scenes as the captain and passengers articulate their various personal issues to each other, usually by monologuing. These would probably feel corny even in a conventional context; surrounded by scenes dealing with killer sea-weed and rampaging invertebrates, they become utterly ridiculous and just as funny as the bad creature effects.

The saving grace of The Lost Continent is that its general badness is still somehow exceeded by its extreme silliness; how anyone involved managed to take any of it seriously is a miracle, but somehow they did and the result is an extraordinary piece of unintentional comedy. Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh to the producer class, but so many producers-turned-directors start off by making this sort of tat: plenty of action and character and colour, but no developing storyline, no connections, just incident after incident. The material here is so bizarre that the film achieves a surreal kind of bad-acid-trip quality; afterwards you can’t quite believe what you’ve been watching. It’s a terrible film, but also enormously entertaining.

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For someone who is overwhelmingly best-remembered as a singer, Frank Sinatra had a pretty good career in non-musical films: he won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity, directed None But the Brave (the first American-Japanese co-production), and at one point was in the frame to play the lead in both Dirty Harry and Die Hard (admittedly, the latter offer was a contractual obligation on the part of the producers). On the other hand, he did reject the idea of making a movie of A Clockwork Orange, thinking the idea had no potential, but nobody’s perfect.

Sinatra himself felt the zenith of his acting career came in 1962 with his role in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, one of those films which regularly shows up on lists of classics. (There was a fun pub quiz question a few years back – who is the only actor to appear in three of the movies on the AFI’s 100 Best of All Time list? I’ll give you a clue: they were also in Night of the Lepus, which is probably something they’re less proud of.) Certainly this is a formidably accomplished and intelligent film – it would be wrong to say that it hasn’t dated at all, but this hasn’t affected its ability to engage and entertain.

Sinatra plays Ben Marco, who at the start of the film is serving in the Korean War (that least romanticised of the USA’s 20th century conflicts). He is the leader of a patrol, assisted by his sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) – but things do not as planned when their native guide betrays them and they are captured by communist forces.

Three days later the patrol makes it back to their own lines, having lost only a couple of its members – Shaw’s incredible bravery has ensured their survival, and all the other survivors agree on his decency and general wonderfulness, even if they’re not convinced they actually like him all that much. Needless to say, Shaw gets the Medal of Honour for his deeds, which is eagerly seized upon by his calculating mother (Angela Lansbury), who sees it as a great publicity tool for Shaw’s stepfather, a senator of somewhat extreme views.

But Marco is troubled by nightmares, remembering the patrol being held prisoner by the Red Chinese and subjected to intensive conditioning and psychological programming: Shaw in particular being transformed into a mindless, remorseless killer. It is just a nightmare, though, isn’t it? But then he learns of other survivors of the patrol who are having the same dreams…

Yes, the whole story about Shaw’s stupendous bravery is just a cover-up for the abduction and processing of the patrol, as well as providing a convenient method of establishing Shaw as an unimpeachably heroic figure. Someone with knowledge of the right triggers – certain phrases and objects – can direct Shaw against any target they choose…

Stephen King has suggested that the political assassin – the proverbial lone gunman – was, for a while at least, one of the great bogeymen of American culture, and The Manchurian Candidate can’t have done anything to dispel this. Perhaps it’s fitting that this most famous of paranoid thrillers is surrounded by real-world conspiracy theories, but it’s certainly a striking coincidence that this is the second Sinatra-starring movie to revolve around a plan to effect change at the top of American society via a political assassination, the first being 1954’s Suddenly. Sinatra allegedly wanted both films withdrawn from circulation when it was suggested they had played a role in inspiring Lee Harvey Oswald’s successful assassination of John F Kennedy – rumour had it for a while that Sinatra bought the negatives to Suddenly and had the film destroyed. The assassin of Robert Kennedy, meanwhile, made various allegations concerning amnesia, brainwashing, and clandestine government activity, all of which are themes this movie touches upon.

Nevertheless, for a political thriller, this is a film which is notably difficult to read in terms of its own politics: one can perhaps detect a note of sympathy towards liberalism, but in general it is fiercely cynical when it comes to ideology of all flavours: quite which party the climactic convention is being held by is left open, while the particular agenda of the villains of the film is also quite obscure – they aspire to a level of social control which will ‘make martial law seem like anarchy’, but this feels more like a kind of authoritarian megalomania than a particular political position. They certainly don’t feel like committed communists – Lansbury vows to topple the communist powers which have assisted her. Then again, even the ideological commitment of the communists seems to be somewhat lacking: one Soviet agent is pleased to report that one of their front operations actually turns a modest profit, while another looks forward to spending an afternoon visiting a high-class department store. In all cases, it seems to be about the exercise of control in pursuit of enlightened (or not so enlightened) self-interest.

The film is quite open about this, opting not to present the story as a mystery – the explanation as to what has happened to Shaw and the rest of the patrol is presented very early in the film, before Marco or anyone has really figured it out. The real driver of the plot is what Shaw’s controllers have in mind for him to do, which is indeed held back until the final act of the movie. In the meantime the movie is powered by the intricacies of the plot and the strength of the performances.

The acting is uniformly good, although Harvey’s tendency to declaim his dialogue in a rather sub-Olivier manner is an unusual choice. Sinatra gives a fine, subtle performance – although the scene where he engages hand-to-hand combat with a Korean communist agent inevitably brings to mind Peter Sellers fighting Burt Kwouk – and he has some engaging scenes with Janet Leigh (who is our pub quiz answer: her other two films from the top 100 are Psycho and Touch of Evil). The film’s star turn, however, is Angela Lansbury, who creates a quite extraordinary monster in Shaw’s mother, Mrs Iselin – it’s been suggested that Richard Condon’s original novel was partly plagiarised from I, Claudius, in which case it makes perfect sense that Mrs Iselin should be a modern-day equivalent of Livia Drusilla. (Seeing as we were recently talking about unlikely parent-child age-gaps in cinema, it’s worth mentioning that Harvey and Lansbury are completely convincing despite there being only three years between them.)

As I’ve said, some stylistic elements of The Manchurian Candidate have dated a little, but the film’s cynicism and intelligence are as engaging as ever. Perhaps in its own way it also acknowledges the fragility of human beings, and the invisible damage that soldiers can carry home with them, a notion which perhaps feels much more modern than one might expect. It’s the mixture of intelligence, cynicism and humanity which makes the film such an impressive and successful piece of entertainment.

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There’s a school of thought which suggests that the western genre was essentially a wholesome, thoughtful and sincere vehicle for examining the nature of the American national psyche, until Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood came along and perverted it into something cynical, nihilistic and obsessed with hollow slaughter. I think this is overly simplistic: darkness crept into the West years before the spaghetti western came into vogue, allowed in by some of the genre’s most celebrated home-grown exponents.

John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) arriving by train in the town of Shinbone, presumably some time around the turn of the century (the film is deliberately coy about the times and places involved, for this is in a sense the story of the entirety of the American frontier). Stoddard is one of America’s leading politicians and a very significant figure; his unexpected arrival causes a stir. What has brought him back to the town where he first became famous?

Journalists gather, but Stoddard and Hallie are more interested in catching up with old acquaintances: retired marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) and lowly ranch-hand Pompey (Woody Strode) chief amongst them. There is an air of inescapable melancholy and regret in the air, of things long-buried being uncovered, all connected to the reason for the Stoddards’ visit: to attend the funeral of washed-up town drunk Tom Doniphon (who, when he eventually appears in the flashback which makes up the bulk of the film, is played by John Wayne). But why?

Stoddard, with the air of a man finally getting something off his chest, tells the tale. The scene changes to many years earlier: Stoddard is travelling to Shinbone by stagecoach, a freshly-qualified lawyer. However, the coach is ambushed by the notorious local bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his men, and Stoddard is badly beaten when he resists. What’s left of him is hauled into town by Doniphon and his servant Pompey, and he’s taken in by the family running the local saloon. He’s nursed back to health by their daughter, Hallie, which Doniphon is a bit disgruntled about (he has plans of the marryin’ kind which involve her).

Stoddard is determined to see Valance brought to justice, which Doniphon roundly ridicules him for: law books mean nothing here, compared to the authority of a gun barrel. If Stoddard wants to stop Valance, he’s going to have to kill him, law or no law. Stoddard is appalled by the prospect (to say nothing of the fact he’s useless with a gun). Meanwhile, tensions are growing between Doniphon and the lawyer, as Stoddard grows closer to Hallie, teaching her to read and write in his capacity as the town’s new schoolteacher.

The lack of law and order in Shinbone is partly due to the territory not having been given statehood yet, which Stoddard and the town dignitaries would like to see happen – but the powerful local cattle barons want to see things stay as they are, and retain Valance to ensure this happens. Stoddard finds himself inevitably heading for a confrontation with the gunman – but, even with Doniphon’s tuition, can he possibly have a chance?

There’s certainly more of a drama than a traditional western about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and perhaps a fair bit of a romance, too: a big portion of the plot revolves around the love triangle between Doniphon, Hallie and Stoddard. The fashion in which this resolves is one of the bittersweet elements which runs through the movie; there is something profoundly melancholy and wistful about the framing scenes that bookend it. The Stoddards reflect on the changes that the railroad and modern technology have brought to the town, rather ambivalently. ‘The desert’s still the same,’ offers Appleyard, rather dismally.

Perhaps, then, this is the story of how the west was lost – or, at least, tamed, if that isn’t the same thing. It’s about the creation of civilisation and society about of anarchy, on one level, a place where men like Stoddard can prosper, but not – it’s implied – ones like Tom Doniphon or Liberty Valance himself.  What’s telling is that it’s suggested that Doniphon has much more more in common with Valance than with Stoddard – neither man has much time for rules or finer points of behaviour, being ferocious individualists, and if Doniphon is a ‘better’ man than Valance, that’s simply due to his essential character rather than any kind of sense of moral obligation.

That this is put across so effectively is mainly due to Ford’s casting, which is both brilliant and obvious: Wayne is playing his usual monolithic rugged individualist, verging on self-parody by this point: by his own admission, a very tough, unreconstructed alpha male. You can’t imagine him playing Stoddard any more than James Stewart playing Doniphon: like Hitchcock and many other directors, Ford recognised Stewart’s genius for playing flawed, human heroes, and that’s what he does here. (We should probably note the irony that in real life, Stewart was a decorated war veteran, while Wayne was acutely self-conscious about his own lack of military service.) In many ways the film is much more about the conflict between Doniphon and Stoddard than either man’s clash with Valance himself (and, as noted, Doniphon and Valance are in many respects mirrors of each other).

In the end, of course, Valance is shot and a bright future for the west is assured – but this, like most of the film, is couched in numerous levels of irony and ambiguity. The film does romanticise the old west, but not without qualification; it suggests that the old west, with its heroes in white hats and virtue always naturally triumphant, is a myth, with little grounding in truth – in this respect it to some extent anticipates Unforgiven, and many other revisionist westerns. But it also suggests the myth is a necessary one for America’s sense of itself to endure. In this respect The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a surprisingly dark and complex film – amongst other things, suggesting that dark and ruthless acts, carried out in secret, are necessary for civilisation to thrive – but it is also a touching and surprisingly moving portrait of the central characters and their relationship. A serious film about complicated ideas, and real emotions; one of the great American westerns, I think, and a harbinger of the genre’s future.

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Basil Dearden’s 1969 film The Assassination Bureau (with the additional word Limited added in some territories) opens with a jolly music-hall-style tune and a montage of attempted Edwardian-era killings going wrong in various amusing ways. Contract killing, it is suggested, was always rather more miss than hit, at least until the closing years of the nineteenth century, at which point a new and rather more efficient organisation of assassins appeared on the scene – the titular bureau, various of whose more creative exploits (lifts with the floor sawn out, etc) are illustrated throughout the opening titles.

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Despite all this mayhem, it seems like the only person onto the existence of the Bureau is feisty young reporter Sonia Winter (Diana Rigg), who promises to bring the details of the organisation to a major newspaper if it will oblige her by furthering the course of female emancipation by giving her a job. The proprietor, Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas) agrees to sponsor her investigations.

Miss Winter has already figured out how to contact the Assassination Bureau and arranges an interview with its chairman (this entails various unlikely security arrangements). The leader of the gang is one Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) – who, despite his name, has been raised as a very proper English gentleman – who enquires as to who it is that Miss Winter would like bumped off. It turns out the gentleman she has in mind to be killed is Dragomiloff himself. He initially laughs it off, saying she couldn’t afford the fee, but the money provided by Bostwick gives him pause, and he accepts the contract on himself.

Why on earth would he do this? Convening a meeting of the senior assassins, Ivan reveals his reasons: the Bureau was founded with moral notions at its core, the idea being that they would never assassinate someone who did not, on some level, really deserve to die. However, Ivan has come to suspect his associates have lost their moral compass somewhat and are simply killing people for money, which is abhorrent in his eyes. By orchestrating this conflict between them and him, Ivan will be able to purge the Assassination Bureau of its unworthy members, dealing with them one-by-one as they move against him. (Yes, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but it’s the notion that the whole movie is predicated on, so you just have to go with it.)

So Ivan sets out across Europe, Miss Winters reluctantly in tow, engaging and despatching his colleagues in France, Switzerland, and other well-known and photogenic locations. What Miss Winters doesn’t know is that Lord Bostwick is a member of the Bureau and set to take over if Ivan is killed, and what Ivan doesn’t know is Bostwick’s plan to use the Bureau as an instrument to incite a major war and redraw the map of Europe…

The Assassination Bureau is one of those movies which probably looked good on paper (it was based on a story by Jack London): the premise has a certain appeal, Basil Dearden is a notable name in the annals of British cinema, and it has an impressive cast – apart from Rigg, Reed, and Savalas, the supporting players include Curt Jurgens (or however you want to spell his name), Warren Mitchell, and many other familiar faces from British films and TV. It’s almost remarkable, in fact, that a film with so much talent attached to it should end up so extremely undistinguished.

It’s easy to see the film’s place in the lineage of zany and tongue-in-cheek comedies of the 1960s – it often plays very much like an Edwardian-dress version of one of the Bond pastiches that were ubiquitous at the time – but, as ever, the main problem is that it just isn’t very funny, and this is probably due to the tonal uncertainty of the film. As you might expect from the title and the subject matter, this is a film with a very significant body-count – there are various shootings, stabbings, poisonings and a lot of deaths by bombing – and the film neither treats these seriously enough to work as a proper thriller, nor floats them past the camera archly enough for it all to work on a tongue-in-cheek level. Much of it is so cartoony that when a character sticks his fork into a bomb disguised as a German sausage and the screen fills with the flash of an explosion, you expect them to emerge with ragged clothes and a blackened face. But they don’t. They just die. It’s almost like a Tom and Jerry cartoon where a horribly mutilated cat has to be taken to the vet at the end.

The murderousness of the script also sits oddly with the various scenes where Rigg and Reed debate the morality of murder and especially of paying someone to kill. This isn’t really done in earnest, but is a pretext for the romance which inevitably develops between the duo. I think both Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg are tremendous actors, neither of whom had the big-screen career their talents deserved, and so I can only assume the lack of chemistry between them is down to the script: Rigg is almost playing a slightly more vulnerable variation on her Mrs Peel character, while Reed is stuck with the dashing male lead, the kind of role which doesn’t require the intensity and suggestion of inner darkness which were his real strengths. (It has to be said that by the end of the film Diana Rigg is very much playing a subordinate role to Reed, in plot terms.)

Of course, if we’re going to talk about 1969 films about suave, saturnine assassins taking on an international conspiracy, with Diana Rigg as the love interest and Telly Savalas as the villain, then the temptation is almost to look at The Assassination Bureau in order to get an idea of what a certain other film might have looked like if Eon had made better casting choices and George Lazenby had remained a vanishingly obscure figure in cultural history. I sort of hope this is misguided, because it’s not a great movie by any chalk – the actors do their best, but the script is poor, the direction not especially impressive, and some of the special effects are absolutely awful.

One is tempted to say that films like The Assassination Bureau illustrate why the British film industry went into such a steep decline, but that might be excessively harsh on the movie. Perhaps if Reed and Rigg had gone on to have the kinds of film careers their talent deserved, this film would just be a curious historical oddity and a reminder that even a film that sounds promising can turn out to be a bit duff. As things stand, though, it gives what’s honestly a slightly poor film a really melancholy edge.

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One day, I’m sure, I will have written about all the portmanteau horror anthology movies made by Milton Subotsky’s Amicus Films in the 1960s and 1970s; one day I may even have written about all the knock-offs copying the Amicus style (things like Tales that Witness Madness and The Uncanny). But not yet, obviously: it still feels like I am trapped in some kind of recurring nightmare, where my bad deeds have condemned me to endlessly revisit an eclectic range of movie stars hoist by their own petards in inventive but slightly thrifty ways…

Freddie Francis’ Torture Garden (NB.: contains very little actual torture, but no actual gardening either) was made in 1967 and thus comes very early in the lineage. Whereas some of the other films were either written by Subotsky himself (drawing quite heavily on common horror-movie tropes) and/or derived from things like American horror comics, Torture Garden is scripted by the distinguished writer of horror and crime fiction Robert Bloch (Bloch is perhaps best remembered for writing the original novel that Psycho was based on, but also contributed a few well-remembered episodes to the original run of Star Trek). Bloch wrote a few movies for Amicus; this isn’t the best, but it has its moments.

The setting for the frame story (there’s always a frame story in this kind of film) is the Torture Garden of Dr Diablo, a circus sideshow being visited by a mixed group of British and American characters (Amicus wanted to use more British actors – Christopher Lee was inevitably in the frame – but the film’s American financiers insisted on big names from the States). Overseeing events is Diablo himself, played with enormous relish by Burgess Meredith. Meredith starts off in a variation on his Penguin outfit, with top hat and cigarette holder, but soon adopts the persona of an American gangster (for some reason).

Well, after the main show, a few of the punters stick around for the ‘special tour’ (only a fiver extra) and Diablo shows them his waxwork of Atropos, Goddess of Destiny, and wielder of the Shears of Fate. (I am tempted to say that shear terror ensues, but probably best not to). Each of the five visitors – Michael Bryant, Beverly Adams, Barbara Ewing, Jack Palance and Michael Ripper – must take it in turn to gaze upon Atropos’ Shears and be given a vision of their own destiny…

And off we go. First up is the tale of an unpleasant and dissolute young man named Williams, played by Michael Bryant (a very fine actor, well-remembered for The Stone Tape and his guest role in Colditz), who visits his wealthy but sick uncle (Maurice Denham) to try and shake him down for some cash. Well, uncle doesn’t play ball, and Williams decides to bring his inheritance forward a bit. Searching the house, he discovers a coffin buried in the cellar, and inside the coffin is a rather peculiar cat. Needless to say Williams soons find himself becoming very familiar with the kitty – or perhaps that should be the other way around…

Pretty basic stuff, this one, but a strong performance from Bryant just about holds it together: at various points he has to declaim exposition to the cat, basically repeating things the cat has just telepathically informed him of. Normally this would be a recipe for the most ridiculously eggy nonsense, but Bryant manages to ensure it’s all just bad rather than disastrous. Decent direction and a very Hammer-ish score help too.

We continue with a story subtitled ‘Terror Over Hollywood’, which strikes me as overstating things a bit. Beverly Adams gets to be the first woman to lead an Amicus segment as actress Carla Hayes. How good an actress she actually is is debatable, but she quickly demonstrates an enormous aptitude for two-faced ruthlessness in pursuit of success in the movie business. One thing about this segment is that it’s arguably just a little bit over-plotted, with a lot of faffing about before we get to the heart of the matter: Carla’s co-star (Robert Hutton) is apparently killed by the mob, but whisked off to a mysterious clinic where he makes a miraculous recovery. What gives?

There’s a nice idea here, sort-of anticipating The Stepford Wives (there’s a bit of a giveaway) and with great potential as a satire of Hollywood and the superficiality of movie stars and their relentless appetite for celebrity, but the reveal comes a bit too abruptly and the story isn’t properly developed. As a result it comes across as a nice idea, not particularly well-realised, but Adams isn’t bad and there’s a cameo from Bernard Kay as an evil doctor.

Barbara Ewing is up next, playing journalist Dorothy Endicott. She meets a famous pianist (John Standing) for an interview and the two of them become romantically involved, despite the concerns of his manager that this will be a distraction from his practising and touring. He does seem very devoted to his work, especially the beautiful old grand piano his mother gave him, which he calls  ‘Euterpe’ (the Greek muse of music). But who will win if it comes down to a contest for his affections between Dorothy and Euterpe?

One thing about this movie is that the different segments all do have their own visual style, and this one is particularly distinctive, with a certain minimalist look to it and mostly black-and-white costumes and sets. The story itself is fairly routine stuff, though, building up to a delirious moment of kitsch nonsense where Ewing is attacked by the piano. It’s not quite up there with Fluff Freeman grappling with the killer vine, but it’s about as close as Torture Garden gets.

Following this it’s Jack Palance’s segment. Palance is in the role initially earmarked for Christopher Lee, playing a obsessive collector of Edgar Allen Poe memorabilia (given Bloch’s mentor was H. P. Lovecraft, himself an enormous admirer of Poe, one wonders if there isn’t a subtle sort of tribute going on here). Palance’s character, Wyatt, meets another collector, Lancelot Canning (the always wonderful Peter Cushing) – Canning really does seem to have every possible piece of Poe material, including some original manuscripts – even a few which are completely unheard of. Can Wyatt resist the temptation to let his envy of Canning’s collection get the better of him?

Well, once you know the background to the film, you can’t help but imagine what this bit would have been like with Lee and Cushing playing the two lead roles. As it is, Palance makes an unusual dance-partner for Cushing, but it’s still an interesting little piece with Palance not disgracing himself opposite the great man. Palance seems to have relished the chance to play more of a character role than one his usual tough guys and perhaps indulges in a bit too much business with his pipe and glasses, but this is an engaging tale with a good twist to it.

Which leaves us with Michael Ripper. Ripper is an actor who gets pigeon-holed as the chap who plays all the inn-keepers and local constables in classic Hammer Horror movies – and, to be fair, he did play a lot of these parts – but he was a performer of considerable range and ability (see, for example, 1964’s Every Day’s a Holiday, where he is required to do a song-and-dance number opposite Ron Moody and is in no way outshone). I was rather looking forward to seeing his chance to shine in this movie.

Well, suffice to say it doesn’t really happen, for we are in twist ending territory. The good thing about the twist ending of Torture Garden is that it isn’t the same one as in all the portmanteau horrors written by Subotsky himself. The bad news is that, like most of the punchlines to the stories in this film, it somehow doesn’t quite connect with the viewer as well as it might, with the result that the movie is a just a bit underwhelming.  Bloch is a very fine writer, but the segments here don’t have the same cartoony power and colour as the ones in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, to name but one. If memory serves, Bloch’s script for Asylum (1972) was rather an improvement – but that’s a set of stories for another day. If you like the Amicus anthology films, this is fun, but not one of their best.

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If you have any experience of the work of the director Daniel Haller – which, if you are of a certain vintage, may not be unlikely – it is most likely to have something to do with his association with Glen A Larson, the TV impressario responsible for Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Knight Rider, amongst others. Haller did a handful of episodes of all these shows, but sci-fi appears to have not been his thing – he appears to have enjoyed working on the more down-to-earth pleasures of The Fall Guy far more, directing dozens of episodes.

I find this a bit surprising, as it is certainly not what one would expect from a man who started his movie career as the art director and production designer on a whole range of baroque and generally good-looking American International movies: he did one or other of these jobs on virtually all of the Roger Corman-directed Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Whatever else you want to say about these films, they do look good, and you could see why the company decided to give Haller a go at directing a movie himself. The fact that Haller spent the last few years of his career directing episodes of The Fall Guy may lead you to suspect that his career as a movie director did not really work out – and this suspicion would not be unfounded, certainly not based on the evidence of his debut.

This is Die, Monster, Die!, released in 1965. I know – that’s a hell of a title for a movie, isn’t it? If perhaps not one that promises the utmost level of subtlety and refinement. There are a number of other hellacious things about this movie, which we shall come to in the fullness of time, but just bear in mind – lurking in the director’s future is the refrain ‘I’m the unknown stunt-man that makes Eastwood look so fine‘.

The movie opens with one of those not-quite-psychedelic title sequences of swirly colours which were briefly fashionable for budget-conscious genre movies in the 1960s (cf. Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD). Is that the name of legendary horror author H. P. Lovecraft we espy in the credits? It is! No wonder this film came out in a double bill with The Haunted Palace, likewise based on one of his short stories.

Hang on, though: rather than being set in Lovecraft’s traditional New England milieu, Die, Monster, Die! is just set in – well, England. A train pulls into the quiet village of Arkham (which must have amused punters at the double bill: The Haunted Palace is set in Arkham, too, just an entirely different one) and disgorges our first imported American star, Nick Adams. Unlike Haller, Adams did his TV work at the start of his career, before switching to playing the American lead in genre films – in the same year as this movie, he went over to Japan, where (billed as Nikku Adamsu) he co-starred in Frankenstein Conquers the World and Invasion of Astro-Monster.

Here, Adams is playing Steve Reinhart, who has come to Arkham to see his love-interest, a young lady named Susan Witley. Reinhart wants to get out to the old Witley place (as most people seem to refer to it), but there is a problem. None of the surly local yokels will go anywhere near the place. The taxi driver gets positively aggressive at the suggestion. The owner of the local bicycle shop refuses to even contemplate renting him a bike. Subtle stuff this is not – and, to be honest, there is something slightly awkward about this whole sequence, which is set in the present day (the mid 60s) but plays like something that should really be taking place the best part of a century earlier. But that’s low budgets for you.

But where did all the budget go? Well, when Reinhart yomps out to the old Witley place, he meets his girlfriend’s father, Nahum Witley (there’s a typical English name for you), who is played by Boris Karloff. I never really know what to make of Boris Karloff, to be honest: he’s not obviously a brilliant actor who somehow ended up typed in horror movies in the same way as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee or Vincent Price. I mean, he’s very good in the Frankenstein movies he made, obviously, but he just seems to have traded on that fact for the next three decades or so: I always find him just a bit hammy, and this film is no exception.

All is obviously not well at the old Witley place: Mrs Witley (Freda Jackson) appears to have become bedridden and very light-sensitive, and the servants aren’t looking well either. Still making an effort, however, is the girl Reinhart has come to see: Susan Witley, played by Suzan Farmer in her film debut (Farmer is perhaps best known for the films she made for Hammer the following year). But what is afoot? Why is everyone so scared of the place? What odd affliction has befallen the Witleys? And what’s making all those weird noises that are coming out of the greenhouse…?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you may be scratching your head and wondering which H. P. Lovecraft story this film is actually based on, because so far it sounds like any one of half a dozen of them. A fair point, and I should probably make it clear at this point that this film is based on a Lovecraft story in the sense that it really bears very little relation to it. In theory, and I only really say this because it’s what’s in the credits, Die, Monster, Die! is based on The Colour Out of Space (the same story recently brought to the screen by Richard Stanley, with Nicolas Cage). The story is about the ghastly fate suffered by a decent family of farming folk, after a strange meteorite falls on their land. You can just about make out the vestiges of that tale here, but it has had all manner of other story elements piled on top of it until it is almost unrecognisable: a romance, the spooky old mansion, a family with a history of trafficking with the powers of darkness, and so on.

Even so, there is still probably potential here for something engaging and vivid, and certainly meeting the usual criteria for being Lovecraftian: there is the terrible influence of heritage and pedigree, not to mention some reasonably well-realised octopus-monsters at one point (can’t be proper Lovecraft without tentacles, or so the consensus would have you believe). The octopus-monsters are certainly better than the jug-eared mannequin that Karloff transforms into at the climax.

The problem is that the film is just too slow: there are differing reports as to what the exact duration is (the US version seems to have been 10% shorter than the UK release), but none of the suggestions are that long, and the film plods along in all of them. There’s a lot of atmospheric walking about with not much else going on: if only the cycle shop had rented Reinhart a bike, the whole business could have been finished in under an hour. Even when things are happening, they’re often just re-stressing points that have already been made – filler, basically.

It’s a shame, because as I have alluded, the film has an interesting cast and is based on a classic short story, to say nothing of being directed by a man with an intriguing visual sense. But none of these things make it into the film wholly intact, somehow. If you’re a serious fan of Lovecraft you will probably find this film of interest, but for everyone else, AIP were making better films in the UK around this time, to say nothing of outfits like Hammer and Amicus. Die, Monster Die! is a fascinating curiosity, but just not a very good film.

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You may recall that last week we talked about the Roger Corman-produced movie Humanoids of the Deep, on which occasion I concluded that, despite appearances, the film’s similarities with the Lovecraft short story The Shadow Over Innsmouth were probably just coincidental. I still stand by that, on the whole, but just the other day I saw another old movie which did give me pause and reason to possibly reconsider: 1963’s The Haunted Palace, directed by Corman himself.

The movie opens in the 18th century New England village of Arkham, where rum doings are a-transpiring, as young women are being lured to the palatial residence of wealthy local grandee Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price, naturally). The music is stirring, the production values classy, and the sense that these AIP movies were the closest thing to Hammer horror in American domestic cinema is only intensified when the local villagers grab their blazing torches and decide to pay Curwen a visit, declaring him to be a necromancer and magician. This is bad news for Curwen, and also for the tree that they decide to tie him to before setting fire to him (presumably they didn’t have a stake handy). In true malevolent warlock style, though, Curwen declares that he will have his revenge – if not on the men present there that night, but on their descendants…

Cue fade out and a quick quotation from Edgar Allan Poe; this was (rather spuriously, as we shall see) promoted as being part of the series of Poe adaptations Corman and Price were engaged upon at the time. Before we know it, it is the 1870s, but Arkham is still blighted by its dark past. Clearly unaware of all this is Bostonian gentleman Charles Dexter Ward (Price again) and his wife Anne (Debra Paget). Ward has just inherited his great-great-grandfather’s house in Arkham, and this turns out to be the ‘palace’ that Curwen had imported stone-by-stone from Europe. It almost goes without saying that Price is playing his own descendant, but who exactly he’s inherited the house from is left a little obscure.

The Wards get an unfriendly reception from the Arkhamites, but in this circumstances this is not entirely surprising: since Curwen’s day the town has been plagued by horrific deformities, with some families having to keep their less-human members chained up for the safety of everyone. (There are various people with webbed fingers, missing eyes and homicidal dispositions, but also one man who appears to have been born without a mouth, which does raise some questions). Ward decides it would be best just to stick around long enough to organise the sale of the house – an encounter with the ‘housekeeper’ of the palace, played by Lon Chaney Jr, may contribute to this – but is in much greater peril than he realises. The portrait of Joseph Curwen still hanging in the house exerts a strange influence upon him, and it soon becomes clear that Curwen’s spirit has been hanging around ever since his untimely cremation, waiting for a suitable vessel to occupy.

The local doctor is friendlier than the other villagers and explains some of the back-story to Ward and his wife: Curwen managed to lay his hands on a copy of a dreaded book entitled the Necronomicon and used it to summon dark otherworldly beings, such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, so they could breed with human women and create a hybrid race which would go on to dominate the world. With Ward increasingly under the possession of Curwen, and his wife not really any the wiser, this project is back on – as soon as Curwen exacts a little revenge on the descendants of his executioners…

As I may have said before, I only really became aware of the Corman-Price-Poe cycle of films when the BBC showed a season of them in 1990 (prime time BBC2, each with a special introduction from Corman himself, how very different the world was then): The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Raven, and (of course) The Masque of the Red Death. The Haunted Palace was notably absent from this run, though – but I can think of a couple of possible reasons why.

Firstly, it may just have been that this was a bit too much for BBC2 at 9pm: it’s not what you’d actually call scary, but it has a profoundly effective brooding and doomy atmosphere, and some of the sequences – particularly those with the mutant, hybrid villagers – are very unsettling even today. There are strange notes being struck here which are not present in any of the other Poe movies Corman was involved with.

Of course, this may be because it’s not actually based on Edgar Allan Poe in any meaningful sense (which is another possible reason why it wasn’t included in a season of Poe movies). The title is Poe, the main ‘based on’ credit goes to Poe, and there are a couple of Poe quotes inserted into the film, but the actual plot is from elsewhere: as the script’s references to Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and the Necronomicon suggest, this is really an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (and the first credited Lovecraft-derived movie, which makes this a landmark in horror cinema). But Lovecraft was virtually unheard-of back in the 1960s, and it was Poe’s name that would sell tickets.

Nevertheless, as a modern viewer, used to nudge-wink references to Lovecraft and his mythology in various movies and TV shows, it’s startling to come across a movie from so long ago which so openly makes use of iconic Lovecraftian props and concepts: the only slight disappointment is that we don’t actually get to hear Vincent Price say ‘Cthulhu’, as that dialogue goes to Frank Maxwell’s character. One thing which slightly irritates me is the way that anything which features a slimy tentacle lazily gets described as ‘Lovecraftian’ by default, when the writer really worked from a wider palette. But The Haunted Palace captures much of the essential Lovecraftian feel – the pervasive atmosphere of gloom and despair, the obsession with the influence of the past upon the present, the almost-instinctive revulsion connected to notions of heredity and miscegenation. This may have been one of the first ‘official’ Lovecraft movies, but it remains one of the most authentic.

Even if you’re not particularly bothered either way about the origins of the story, this is still an effectively creepy movie – Price is on top form in what’s effectively a double role, as you’d expect, but there’s also a very good supporting turn from Lon Chaney Jr, as you might not. That said, this is a movie filled with good performances, made with impressive production values and capable direction. Several times during this film I was struck by how much it resembled the kind of Gothic horror which Hammer Films were making in the UK during the same period. The Corman-Price films often had a slightly lighter touch and a little more colour about them, but the best of them are as good as any classic Hammer film, and The Haunted Palace is amongst the best.

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For a film directed by a relatively obscure journeyman, 1969’s Doppelganger (perhaps better known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, especially in the US) has a remarkably distinctive creative identity to it: I imagine that many people, of a certain age at least, could be shown a rough cut without credits and still come away with a very firm idea of who exactly the prime mover behind it was. From the very start, the music is instantly recognisable as the work of the composer Barry Gray, and the model work (which is extensive) is equally obviously the work of Derek Meddings and his team. Even if you don’t know these names, you will recognise the style from dozens of episodes of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, and other TV shows originated by Gerald Alexander Anderson (Gerry to the world).

It has become one of those quite-well-known stories that, at some point in the middle 1960s, Gerry Anderson was taken out to lunch by Stanley Kubrick, who offered him the chance to do the model unit filming for 2001: A Space Odyssey. History does not recall exactly why, but Anderson turned Kubrick down – however, it looks like the eventual success of the film clearly had an impact on Anderson, who always seems to have wanted to be taken seriously as a film-maker, and it sometimes feels as if much of Anderson’s subsequent work was an attempt to make up for this missed opportunity and somehow show the world what the Gerry Anderson version of 2001 would have been like.

Doppelganger was directed by Robert Parrish, completed in 1968, and then sat on the shelf for a year before its eventual release. By this point Anderson had a string of successful puppet shows under his belt, but, as ever, was aching to get into live action, and a meeting with an executive from Universal Pictures gave him his opportunity: this film was the result.

The plot is initiated by surprising results from a deep-space probe sent to the vicinity of the sun: photos indicate the existence of a hitherto-unsuspected planet on the opposite side of the sun from Earth, in the same orbital path and travelling at the same speed, hence the other planet has remained hidden from terrestrial observers. Tough, hard-bitten head of European space research Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark, basically reprising his role as tough, hard-bitten mogul John Wilder in TV’s The Power Game) uses all his wily skills to get the penny-pinching governments of Europe to club together with NASA to pay for a space flight to survey the new planet (this will cost one billion dollars, or apparently three thousand million pounds: what this says about exchange rates in the film’s near-future setting I leave to others to decide).

As part of the funding deal (for the movie as well as the space mission), the chief astronaut is veteran American pilot Glenn Ross (Roy Thinnes, fresh from his stint as architect David Vincent in The Invaders), while there to do the science, provide character support, and turn up drunk on set is British astrophysicist John Kane (Ian Hendry). Soon enough – actually, not nearly soon enough, for we are nearly half-way into the movie already – the ship blasts off for its three-week trip to the new planet (the two astronauts spend it in a primitive form of suspended animation). Finding the new world to have a breathable atmosphere, a landing gets underway – but it goes badly wrong, and the lander is destroyed as it crashes into a bleak and rocky landscape.

But just when things look terminally bleak for Ross and Kane, they are surprised to find themselves saved, by what appears to be an Air-Sea Rescue vehicle. Apparently they have crash-landed back on Earth, in Mongolia. Kane has been grievously injured, but Ross finds himself dragged in front of Webb and his associates, demanding to know why the mission turned back and has returned to Earth rather than surveying the new planet as planned. Ross has no answer to this – but begins to get an inkling of an explanation when he notices that all the writing around him now appears to be reversed, as if appearing in a mirror…

The good news about Doppelganger is that it displays all the technical skill and inventiveness of the operation that Anderson had put together over the preceding decade: the model-work is superb and innovative, resulting in a deserved Oscar nomination for special effects. At this point in time, it’s fair to say that no-one was doing better model effects than Derek Meddings and his technicians. The bad news, on the other hand, is that the script for Doppelganger was largely written by Gerry Anderson himself, with the assistance of his wife Sylvia.

Now, I have a great and enduring fondness for Anderson and his work (I will even watch the odd episode of second-season Space: 1999 if there is nothing else on TV), but only the most devoted fan would deny there were limitations to his talent. Anderson’s genius was as an originator of ideas and as a producer – when it comes to actual story-telling and the scripts he wrote himself, one is likely in for a very bumpy ride, not least because, as the producer of his own scripts, he generally had the power to stop the directors from making any changes (improvements) to them.

The basic premise of Doppelganger (the existence of a mirror- or counter-Earth which is a near-perfect duplicate) was probably approaching the status of SF old chestnut even in 1968, and part of the problem is that Anderson seems to have thought the notion itself was strong enough to carry the movie. It’s not: the film doesn’t seem interested in the philosophical or metaphysical possibilities of the idea, and why the other Earth differs only in that everything seems to have been reflected is never explained. And as the central idea of the story, it doesn’t really go anywhere or lend itself to a compelling plot – the climax they come up with here feels very contrived and abrupt.

Of course, there is also the issue of the sluggish pacing and structure of the film. It’s almost a hallmark of many Anderson productions that he seems to be much more interested in process than in plot – you remember all those elaborate sequences in Thunderbirds of people rotating through walls, going down ramps, etc, all leading up to the launching of one of the Thunderbird vehicles? That’s the kind of thing I mean. There’s another one at the start of the movie Thunderbirds Are Go, where we see the Zero-X spacecraft being assembled prior to launch: this goes on for about five minutes, without any dialogue. No matter how much you love model effects, it is slow and adds nothing essential to the plot. And it’s the same kind of material that hobbles Doppelganger: it turns out there’s a spy in the European space agency (this is Herbert Lom, basically doing a cameo), and there’s a pointlessly long and involved sequence detailing how he develops the photos he takes with his secret bionic-eye-camera. The sequence of the astronauts transferring to their lander before attempting touchdown on the other Earth is a similar offender.

That said, as a new kind of venture for the Anderson organisation, Doppelganger introduces some innovative varieties of mis-step to the repertoire. Most of these seem to derive from Anderson’s fierce desire to be seen as more than just a maker of children’s TV programmes. He was apparently desperately keen to establish this as a movie for an adult audience by including a nude scene for one or both of the female stars (Loni von Friedl and Thinnes’ real-life wife Lynn Loring), and ructions ensued on set when the director wanted to go in a more subtle direction. There’s something similarly odd and jarring about scenes concerning tensions in the Rosses’ marriage and their apparent inability to have children, which may or may not be due to radiation he was exposed to in space. You think, aha, when he gets to the mirror-Earth his counterpart will be happily married with kids – but no. This goes nowhere too.

Doppelganger is not great in all kinds of ways, but for the dedicated follower of things Andersonian it is obviously of some interest – not least because of the number of ways it anticipates the way the rest of his live-action career would develop. The interest in slightly laborious metaphysical SF would find its fullest expression in the first season of Space: 1999, while on a more practical level, one is immediately struck by how many members of this film’s supporting cast turn up as regulars or semi-regulars in Anderson’s first fully live-action TV series, UFO: Ed Bishop and George Sewell, most obviously, but also Vladek Sheybal and Keith Alexander, almong with many others.

I do think that the craziness of the scripts of Gerry Anderson productions is as much a part of their charm as their visual appeal and the quality of the special effects. The special effects in Doppelganger are good, as previously noted, but the script is lumpy and frustrating throughout, with no single element being completely satisfying. The actors do their best with the material, but there’s really very little to work with. Only worth watching for Anderson completists, I would say.

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My taste in movies is broader than most people’s, but that doesn’t mean I expect all of them to be good. I find it is important to bear in mind that, no matter how talented or discriminating someone is, the chances are they have participated in at least one piece of complete garbage in the course of their careers: successful movie actors just have a much higher hit rate than most. I am reminded of something Michael Caine said, about how one needed to make sure only one film in five was a genuine stinker – Caine’s legendary willingness to appear in virtually anything may have constituted an attempt to stack the odds in his favour.

Much as I have attempted to impress this principle on others, it has not always taken. It would have been in the late summer of 2005 that my father approached me and enquired if I would be recording a showing of Joe McGrath’s 1969 film The Magic Christian, due on TV that evening. I had not planned to; reviews in the TV listings were unenthusiastic and it didn’t look like my kind of thing, let alone his. Nevertheless, he asked if I would tape it for him. I agreed, but asked why: ‘it’s got lots of good people in it,’ was his response. This I cannot argue with: the film’s most distinguishing feature is an astonishing cast list, starting with Peter Sellers and going on to include Ringo Starr, Laurence Harvey, Hattie Jacques, John le Mesurier, Richard Attenborough, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Spike Milligan, Dennis Price, Yul Brynner, Roman Polanski, Raquel Welch and Christopher Lee, along with many other well-known faces, some of them playing themselves. That the film does not seem to recognise the value of its assets, and fritters them away rather, is thematically appropriate but still bad film-making.

(NB: staring at the poster for three minutes will mean you probably have a longer exposure to Raquel Welch than her entire actual screen-time in the movie. Caveat emptor.)

Peter Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, an eccentric billionaire, who at the start of the film decides to make up for his childless state by adopting an heir: he chooses a tramp from one of London’s parks, played by Ringo Starr (there have been suggestions the part was actually written for John Lennon, and you can imagine him in it). The duo set out to perpetrate a series of insanely lavish practical jokes puncturing the pomposity of the society they see around them and exposing the venality of the great and the good. As Sellers’ character puts it at one point, ‘Grand’s the name, money’s my game – would you like to play?’

What follows is an almost entirely plotless series of skits and sketches, most of which concern the Grands bribing people to sabotage various aspects of mainstream society. They pay the actor Laurence Harvey to do a striptease in the middle of a performance of Hamlet, pay one of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race teams to ram their opponents and wreck the contest, get someone to enter a black panther (farcically disguised as a dog) at Crufts, and so on. Eventually the Grands set out on a cruise to New York on the liner The Magic Christian, where all manner of strange events start to occur – but is all as it seems? (Hint: no it isn’t, but by this point you will have stopped caring anyway.)

Apart from Sellers and Starr, most of those big names in the cast list turn up for only one or two scenes, and it is a general rule of thumb that the less time they have on screen, the better they come across, as the script for this movie is so slapdash and lousy that hardly any of them can do much with this material. I suppose this excuses most of them, with the possible exception of John Cleese and Graham Chapman: they wrote an earlier version of the script (later replaced by one written by McGrath and Terry Southern, author of the source novel), but the only scenes from this which survived are the ones they appear in – so in a very real sense they are the authors of their own misfortunes here. (This clearly left its mark on Cleese and Chapman: an episode of Monty Python made a couple of years later features an insane, incompetent Scottish film director, and the stage directions in the script drily make clear that he ‘in no way resembles J. McGrath.’)

Some of the more lavishly silly sequences in The Magic Christian do kind of anticipate Python at its most absurd – there’s a bit where Grand goes partridge hunting using an ack-ack gun and a flame-thrower – but the film has a kind of laboriousness about it that takes away most of the fun; much of the humour also comes across as rather problematic, too (many jokes seem racist, sexist, or homophobic).

This is because it seems to be battering away at a supposedly subversive message about how money-obsessed the great and the good of society are. (This is possibly not the most dazzlingly original insight in the annals of British satire.) One has to remember the film was made at the end of the 1960s and does embody, awkwardly, something of the hippy ideal of not being materialist or acquisitive. However, if this film was a person, it would be Sid James dragged up as a hippy at the end of Carry On Camping – the costume is just about right, and he’s saying some of the right words, but it is plainly a disguise and a deeply unconvincing one. It feels more like a hippy exploitation film than a genuine attempt to make a satire embodying the philosophy of the counter-culture – even if it is, it is hopelessly naive and unsubtle.

There is the odd mildly amusing moment scattered through the film – the scene where Roman Polanski encounters a rather unexpected cabaret singer is perhaps the closest it gets to being laugh-out-loud funny – and I suppose Peter Sellers deserves some kind of credit for delivering a solid comic performance that does as much as anything to hold the film together. But even so, this is one sixties artefact which has not aged well, mainly because it was never any good at the time. Paul Merton once went on TV to defend The Magic Christian, suggesting it has a reputation as a bad movie because it has been smeared by various establishment film critics offended by its all-purpose irreverence. Paul, I hate to contradict you, but I have to disagree: The Magic Christian‘s reputation as a bad movie stems mainly from the fact it is a bad movie.

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