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Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

I have occasionally written in the past of the distinct pleasure of going to see a film knowing very little in advance about it, especially in a genre I particularly enjoy. This is why there are a bunch of Russian SF movies lined up on my hard-drive, waiting for a day when it is too sunny for me to comfortably move around outside, and also why my interest was piqued when the UPP’s vintage slot was taken up by Czech director Jindrich Polak’s 1963 film Ikarie XB-1, which it billed as a ‘pioneering and much-imitated cornerstone of contemporary sci-fi’. This was particularly intriguing, as this is a film I had never been aware of before.

One thing about old SF movies from behind the Iron Curtain is that they seem a bit more likely to be based on a respectable piece of literature than their American equivalents – you still get terrible, low-budget knock-offs like Space Cop, but also lots of movies based on the works of the Strugatsky brothers and especially Stanislaw Lem. Ikarie XB-1 is apparently a loose adaptation of a Lem novel entitled The Magellanic Cloud, but it seems to me to have a much greater and somewhat surprising significance within SF as a cinematic genre.

The film has a slightly disconcerting in media res opening, with a clearly troubled and somewhat disfigured crewman (Otto Lackovic) in the process of running amok on the ship with a blaster, wailing about the Earth never having existed. The stark black-and-white photography and camerawork instantly puts one in mind of continental art cinema from around the period, even though the sets and costumes are still to some extent in the glitzy pulp SF tradition. From here we launch into opening credits powered along by a memorably jangly and discordant musical score.

We flash back to the beginning of the mission which the film is concerned with, and the departure into deep space of the Ikarie XB-1, effectively a small space colony dispatched on a decades-long mission to the Alpha Centauri system – however, due to the mysterious effects of time dilation, only a couple of years will pass for the crew. The craft is mostly crewed by strapping young men and young women with a certain exotic something about them; there are also a couple of distinguished-looking character actors in command, most obviously Zdenek Stepanek as Captain Vladimir Abajev. There is also the ship’s robot, an extraordinarily clunky and unconvincing prop – this is the single biggest weakness in the whole picture.

The ship heads out into the great darkness, and various members of the crew reflect on their position, some in an existential sort of way, others contemplating more personal concerns – one of them, for instance, has left their pregnant partner back on Earth, and is struggling to get his head around the fact his daughter will be fifteen when they meet, even though for him only a fraction of that time will elapse. They also encounter various hazards, such as derelict spaceships from the 20th century (this film does that thing of being set exactly 200 years into the future, with the XB-1 setting off in 2163), and a ‘dark star’ emitting lethal radiation.

If the slightly episodic nature of the plot is an attempt to evoke the feeling of an epic journey across space, then this scheme is somewhat undercut by the fact the film is just shy of being 90 minutes long: as a result it just feels like a movie which is lacking in a strong central narrative. Now, it is certainly possible to try and do this kind of SF film as a mood or character piece, but it is unusual to find it being attempted in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s, regardless of whether or not this is a film based on a novel.

Watching the movie, you are much more aware of it as a piece of cinema anyway – I have occasionally wondered about the extent to which Communist film-makers were influenced by their western counterparts, especially when it came to genre movies, and Ikarie XB-1 suggests they were certainly aware of what was going on. Quite apart from the fact that some of the effects shots come perilously close to evoking 1930s Flash Gordon serials (the XB-1 is just a little bit too wobbly on its plunge across the stars), it seems a no-brainer that the makers of this film had watched Forbidden Planet, if nothing else – the plot bears no real similarities to that of the American movie, but there is something there in the aesthetic of the film, especially in that awful robot, which has an exposed brain like an miniature fairground attraction, obviously based on Robbie the Robot.

Despite all that, Ikarie XB-1 never actually feels like a piece of kitsch, derivative B-movie cinema – not in the Czech-language version, anyway. It has a rather downbeat, naturalistic quality that I wasn’t expecting at all, the performances are serious, and it isn’t afraid to touch on some more thoughtful ideas  and psychological issues along the way. The ending does come a bit out of nowhere, but it concerns humanity making unexpected contact with a totally unknown, clearly very alien civilisation or intelligence, and this is epochal event is presented not as something to be terrified of, but a source of wonder. Perhaps one is looking too hard for connections which don’t actually exist, but it is not really surprising to learn that when Stanley Kubrick was assimilating the SF genre in the early 1960s, looking to make ‘the proverbial good science fiction film’, this was apparently one of the films that really influenced him.

It is a bold move to suggest that Ikarie XB-1 is, in fact, the missing link in the development of the SF movie between Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I do think there is an element of truth to it. I suspect most of this is obscured in the US version of the film, which was inaccurately re-titled Voyage to the End of the Universe and had a different, feeble-sounding, Twilight Zone-ish ending foisted on it by the American distributor. As usual, the original version is much more interesting. I still think the Czech version has issues when it comes to the script, but in many other ways this film lives up to the claims made for it as a significant entry in the genre’s history.

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In the UK we are used to genre movies being given distinction and a touch of gravitas by the presence of classy actors who you wouldn’t automatically associate with low-budget horror and fantasy – the most famous examples being, of course, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. This famous duo top a list of first-rate performers which includes people like Andre Morell, Oliver Reed, George Sanders, Ralph Richardson, Patrick Troughton, and many more. When it comes to American films, however, it feels like this doesn’t happen nearly so much. The blazingly obvious exception is Vincent Price, of course (an actor who also made films in Britain, of course), but apart from him, who else is there? Mostly just people at the very beginnings (Jack Nicholson) or ends (Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone) of their careers.

And then there is Ray Milland, an A-list star for many years, and Paramount’s highest paid performer as well. In his later years Milland turned up in various made-for-TV fare, some of which got theatrical releases over here (he is in the first Battlestar Galactica movie, for example), but in the 1960s he followed in Vincent Price’s footsteps and made a handful of films with Roger Corman. One of these was an entry into Corman’s cycle of Poe adaptations; the other, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, is slightly trickier to pin down when it comes to its pedigree.

The film was released in 1963. Milland plays James Xavier, a scientist and surgeon who is brilliant to the point of actual arrogance. The particular bee in Xavier’s bonnet is his dissatisfaction with the fact that the human eye can only perceive 10% or so of the spectrum. Feeling we should do better, he has obtained funding to develop some hormonal eyedrops to expand the range of human vision, and happily demonstrates them to a representative of the funding body, Diane Fairfax (Diana van der Vlis), by testing them on a monkey. The monkey indeed appears to briefly acquire the ability to see through sheets of card, which is good, but then it appears to die of shock, which is not. Having skipped the same class on hubris and nemesis as Dr Frankenstein, Seth Brundle, and every other SF-horror movie scientist you care to mention, Xavier cheerfully ignores the deceased simian and, facing a review from the money men, takes the eyedrops himself.

Well, the results are mixed, as his funding is suspended as the committee holding the purse strings have grave doubts about his work – but looking on the bright side, he can now achieve miracles of surgery, and also see everyone naked at parties (of course, as the movie was made in 1963, so this is all presented very innocently). However, an uneasy colleague, disturbed by Xavier’s arrogance, assures him he will be tried for malpractice, and a friend’s attempt to make an intervention results in the friend falling out of a window many stories up (this bit is not fantastically well presented).

Xavier is forced to drop out of sight (no pun intended), taking up residence first as a theme park novelty act, and later as a kind of faith healer, encouraged in both of these by an unscrupulous associate, Crane (a really nice performance by Don Rickles) – it’s the only way he can make any money to fund further research, for his sight is continuing to change. But when Diane finds him, he resolves to use his special faculties to fund his research – by going to Las Vegas and taking on the casinos. However, his vision is continuing to expand, causing him no small psychological stress, as reality itself literally unravels before his eyes…

So, on one level this is obviously another of those cautionary tales about Misguided Scientists Meddling In Things Of Which Man Was Not Meant To Know, although some commentators have found more interesting and subtle elements to it – Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, suggests that it is one of the few American horror films to conjure up an authentically Lovecraftian sense of dreadful cosmic horror, which I suppose is arguably the case: Xavier gibbers of catching sight of a great, all-seeing eye at the heart of the universe, which certainly sounds like the sort of thing Lovecraft would have come up with. (King also writes of a supposedly lost ‘original ending’, in which Xavier despairingly wails ‘I can still see!’, even after [spoilers redacted]. Roger Corman denies this ever existed, but acknowledges it is a better conclusion than the one in the film.)

Whatever you think of the story – and personally, I find it to be just a bit too linear and obvious, and by no means rushed even at less than 80 minutes in duration – the film works as well as it does mostly because of Milland’s terrific central performance. You can see why this guy was a major star for decades – in the early part of the film in particular, it’s like watching Cary Grant making a sci-fi B-movie: Milland has the same effortless suave charisma, he even sounds a bit like Grant. As the film goes on, he handles Xavier’s descent into haunted despair and then mania equally well, wringing every drop from a script, which (naked party scenes aside) handles its subject matter with commendable seriousness. With the possible exception of Rickles, no-one else really gets a look in.

Of course, you can pretty much guarantee that a film subtitled The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is going to include some ambitious point-of-view shots, and for a film of its time this one produces some interesting effects as it goes on. They are striking and lurid, for the most part, especially the psychedelic cityscapes that Xavier witnesses towards the end of the film. On the other hand, they are to some degree expressionistic – Corman has spoken of updating the film with more modern optical effects, and you can understand why. Whether this would include taking a second look at the final shot of the film, which for me doesn’t really work, I don’t know.

In any case, this is a solid, well-scripted film, interesting to look at and with a clear sense of what it wants to be. It’s Ray Milland’s performance, though, which really makes it memorable and distinctive.

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Twenty years on from his death, the world seems to be thinking of Stanley Kubrick more than ever: an exhibition is currently running in London of props and personal effects from the Kubrick archives, a few weeks ago A Clockwork Orange enjoyed a re-release, there was a mini-season of his films across various BBC channels… then again, it does seem that Kubrick casts a longer shadow than most, and his films are revived on a regular basis (and quite right too, you might say). This even includes the one major film over which Kubrick did not have complete creative control, with the result that he was so dissatisfied that he effectively disowned it.

I speak, of course, of 1960’s Spartacus, onto which he was brought after the original director, Anthony Mann, was fired after only a week’s filming had been completed. The making of this film seems to have been unusually colourful: the project was initiated by star Kirk Douglas after he failed to win the lead role in Ben-Hur, found itself in a race with a rival Spartacus project involving Yul Brynner, was instrumental in destroying the Hollywood blacklist by crediting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Douglas recalls being rather disgusted by Kubrick’s eagerness to take the credit for the script), and so on.

This is entirely in keeping with a film which purports to be a retelling of one of the most intriguing stories of antiquity: the Third Servile War, also known as Spartacus’ rebellion against the Roman republic. Little is known of the actual history of these events, the Romans being characteristically reluctant to keep records of an incident they felt to be profoundly embarrassing. Given so little is known, I suppose it is quite impressive that the film manages to get the majority of the facts wrong.

Still, the story remains very roughly accurate in most respects: Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus, a man born into slavery but still possessed of a stubborn and rebellious streak: enough to get him into serious trouble in the mines where he has spent most of his life. He is saved from a death sentence by the gladiatorial entrepreneur Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who brings him to his school in Capua where a brutal training regime begins. Pretty much the only solace he gets, other than the sense of brotherhood that inevitably develops between the gladiators, is a low-key romance with a slave-girl named Varinia (Jean Simmons).

But all the ends with the visit of the ruthless soldier and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), who takes a fancy to Varinia and purchases her from Batiatus. He also informs Batiatus that he expects to see gladiators fight to the death for his entertainment and that of his distinguished young companions. Spartacus narrowly avoids death in the ensuing combat, but resentment festers amongst the slaves, and when he learns he is never to see Varinia again, Spartacus snaps and launches a revolt against the masters of the school. Soon all the countryside around Capua is in uproar and the rulers of Rome must decide on their response to the gathering slave army in the countryside…

Over the last fifty or sixty years, Spartacus has become a hardy perennial of the TV schedules, and I have watched the initial hour or so of the movie many, many times. This is mainly because the first act of the movie barely puts a foot wrong in establishing the characters and tone of the movie. The sequence culminating in the arena fight between Douglas and Woody Strode, in particular, is an exemplary demonstration of how to build up to, stage, and choreograph this kind of action set-piece, and a genuine highlight of the film. Of course, it also introduces Olivier as Crassus, thus setting up the much longer middle section of the film.

Once the gladiators actually start revolting, we reach the point at which I usually change the channel, to be honest, because the film undergoes a strange and slightly jarring change of emphasis – Spartacus, previously a taciturn figure who mainly expresses himself through violence, suddenly becomes an idealistic and (relatively) eloquent leader of men, in charge of a multitude of people who are presented in rather trite and sentimental terms – there seem to be a disproportionate number of small moppets, sweet old couples, and amusing dwarves amongst the rebelling slaves. One of Kubrick’s issues with the script was that Spartacus is a dull character without quirks, and he kind of has a point – Douglas relies heavily on his innate charisma, together with a couple of very minor grace-note scenes where he is afflicted with mild self-doubt.

What keeps the film going, apart from its impressive scale, spectacle, and Alex North’s marvellous orchestral score (you can hear echoes of it in many subsequent soundtracks by much more famous composers), is the other strand of the plot at this point, which concerns the political shenanigans in Rome – the viewer is left to pick this up for him or herself, mostly, but basically a class (or caste) struggle is in progress, with the wily old Gracchus (Charles Laughton) on one side, backed up by the massed plebes, set against the more aristocratic (not to mention autocratic) Crassus. Which way Gracchus’ protege Julius Caesar (John Gavin) will jump is not immediately clear (Caesar is a relatively minor character in Spartacus, and not especially sympathetically portrayed). The ace card of this section of the film is the presence of so many great actors – Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov – all apparently intent on outdoing each other. Ustinov and Laughton seem to have worked out they can’t match Olivier for sheer power and presence, as he was pretty much in his prime at this point, but they both milk their roles for all the entertainment value possible, and it was Ustinov who took the Oscar home.

Olivier’s dominance of the film seems quite fitting as one of the things that marks Spartacus out from the majority of sword-and-sandal epics is that it has a genuinely downbeat trajectory and an honestly bleak ending. All of Spartacus’ bold statements about freedom and the right to live as one chooses come to nothing – the rebellion is crushed, with thousands slaughtered by the Roman legions, and all it has achieved is to allow Crassus to orchestrate his rise to unmatched power in what remains of the Republic. There is no choir standing by behind the camera, no hopeful message about the eventual victory of Christianity – this is a rare example of a big Hollywood movie where the bad guy wins. The film works horribly hard to try and give Spartacus the moral victory, and at least Crassus doesn’t get the girl, but neither does he end up dead, on a cross, committing suicide, or driven into exile, which is what happens to the sympathetic characters in this film. (There’s no mention of the grisly fate suffered by the historical Crassus.) The film’s grimness and cynicism do feel authentically Kubrickian.

Elsewhere, the great director handles the toybox of the Hollywood epic with all the skill and elan you might expect, and – perhaps – the lack of ability to generate sincere emotion you might also associate with his work. The climactic battle between the slaves and the legions is stirring stuff, to be sure, and the vista of corpses as far as the eye can see in the aftermath is an uncompromising image, but the defeat of the heroes and the death of all their dreams never quite hits you where you live; the battle is missing the moment where Spartacus realises his army has no chance of victory and we see his reaction to it. It is this and a few other missed beats that keep Spartacus from being a classic of the first rank. Nevertheless, for all of Kubrick’s antipathy towards it, this is a film which most other directors would and should have been very proud of.

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I have an embarrassing and possibly hard-to-credit confession to make: I have a tendency to get some of these 60s and 70s apocalyptic SF movies jumbled up in my head. I think this is partly the fault of the writers, who could have been a big more imaginative in their titling sometimes: the names of these things are a bit formulaic. Following the success of The Day the Earth Stood Still, we end up with The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and a bit after that The Day the Sky Exploded (I suppose you could also add The Day of the Triffids to the list, though that’s not quite the same thing, of course). For a long time I thought there was another film entitled The Day the Earth Cracked Open, but this is not actually true; the film in question actually trades under the name Crack in the World. I suspect I was getting The Day the Earth Caught Fire mixed up with the Hammer project When the Earth Cracked Open, which is no small achievement considering the latter film was never even made.

I should know better, for Crack in the World enjoys outstanding sci-fi B-movie credentials. Director Andrew Marton may not have much form in the genre, but the cast list scores highly on the Rocky Horror opening number bing-o-meter, with Dana Andrews and Janette Scott playing the two leads. Scott’s Day of the Triffids co-star, Kieron Moore, also turns up; this probably isn’t a coincidence as the two films are from the same producers (one of whom, Philip Yordan, surely deserves more recognition within the fantasy considering he contributed to the scripts of The Time Machine, Horror Express, and Psychomania, amongst others). Art direction is handled by Eugene Lourie, who directed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Behemoth the Sea Monster and Gorgo, which might possibly lead you to expect a different kind of film to what this is.

We get underway with a delegation of important folk trundling across the African savannah in jeeps. Apparently we are in Tanganyika (Tanzania these days); natives with spears look on gravely as the jeeps go by, but make no other contribution to the film (which was actually made in Spain anyway). Soon enough everyone arrives at a remote scientific outpost where a big derrick, of sorts, has been put up. There to greet the important folk is Maggie (Scott), who is married to the boss, Sorenson (Andrews). Sorenson can’t be there as he is busy getting secret treatment for secret Movie Cancer, but Maggie shows them around until he turns up.

This visit has been thoughtfully timed to deliver maximum exposition in the most discreet way. We, and the important folk, learn that Sorenson has been drilling through the Earth’s crust in search of a new source of geothermal power, but the last bit of crust has proved to be unexpectedly resilient and the plan, which he needs the important folk to assent to, is to detonate an atomic bomb at the bottom of the shaft to make the final breakthrough. Sorenson’s demonstration is very good in the visual aid department (in fact, all the pseudo-scientific bits in this film are very carefully and vividly explained; it’s just a shame much of the actually science is deeply iffy), even when it comes to the theories of his youthful rival Ted Rampion (what the hell kind of name is that for a sci-fi B-movie lead character?). Ted’s concern is that multiple nuclear tests have already fractured the crust and one more big blast will have dire consequences for the integrity of the planet. Ted’s ideas make a lot of sense, even when it’s Sorenson explaining them, but you know he’s going to be ignored as there’ll be no story otherwise.

Well, the important folk say yes, of course, and Ted (Moore) resigns in a huff, though not before we have a few scenes sketching out the simmering love triangle between the three leads. Ted goes off to London to try and persuade the important folk to change their decision, while Sorenson goes full speed ahead with the insertion of the bomb. There is a lovely hokey quality to the way that the bomb is sent down the shaft, attached to a missile with its engines blazing even though it’s going straight down; presumably gravity just wouldn’t do the job quick enough.

Everything seems to go well, with magma spouting out of the borehole, but it soon becomes apparent that Ted was right and Sorenson was an insane, hubristic fool; the Earth’s crust has indeed been severely sundered by the blast, which hit a pocket of subterranean hydrogen that magnified its intensity several-fold. Now a ravening fault is opening up, heading eastward across the Indian ocean at over seventy miles a day, causing massive earthquakes wherever it goes. If the crack circumnavigates the Earth, the enormous pressure of the core will cause the planet to split in two – the scientists had better get their thinking caps on!

You can kind of recognise Crack in the World as a sort of remote ancestor of the kind of films Roland Emmerich has made such a success of – outrageous sci-fi disaster movies, with enormous property damage in the background and trite human-interest melodrama going on closer to the camera. The main problem with this is the simple fact that Crack was made in 1965, for a budget of less than a million dollars. The special effects, such as they are, are not too bad in a slightly sub-Gerry Anderson way, but for the most part the film steers clear of showing the immense devastation we are assured the crack is causing: characters just get told about it over the phone or radio. As a result this feels like an oddly bloodless calamity until quite close to the end of the film.

The whole thing would indeed feel like an extended episode of Thunderbirds were it not for the melodrama subplot. It has to be said that while this is also quite hokey, the characterisation in this film is unexpectedly solid and intelligently handled – the multiple layers of rivalry between Sorenson and Ted do inform the plot, while Sorenson’s Movie Cancer isn’t just a plot device: his desperation to complete his life’s work while he still can is one of the things driving him to ignore Ted’s concerns. Janette Scott, on the other hand, just gets to be decorative and concerned about the two guys; she is also issued with one of those costumes which instantly becomes very fragile once the climax of the film arrives and she finds herself in actual jeopardy.

The film is a bit dry and earnest, and could probably use a few more funny lines, but it moves along well despite the limitations of the special effects and the slightly preposterous science – the further you get into the film, the dafter the science gets. Still, the climax is well-mounted, for all it is over-the-top, and the three leads do good work with the material they are issued. The overall theme of ‘don’t let scientists mess about with A-bombs’ is hardly original, and it doesn’t grip or convince in anything like the same manner as The Day the Earth Caught Fire, but this is a decent mid-range sci-fi movie by 1960s standards.

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As someone who had to wait to see the original Godzilla until Channel 4 showed it in the wee small hours of Christmas Morning 1999, it was a source of some irritation to me that my father would occasionally make casual reference to having seen the film when he was younger. This lasted until I took the trouble to actually enquire as to what he’d thought of the film. ‘Oh… well…’ he said, vaguely. ‘I think they caught a monster and put it on display, but they didn’t realise it was really a baby… and then Godzilla came to get it back… it was all right.’ The mystery was solved: he hadn’t actually seen Godzilla at all, but the 1961 British film Gorgo. I’m not sure this quite qualifies as an instance of the Mandela effect, but it’s a fairly understandable mistake for someone to make: it’s very tempting, and far from inaccurate to refer to Gorgo as the British Godzilla.

After a properly stirring set of titles, the film gets under way off the coast of Ireland, where a small freighter is going about its business. Captaining the vessel is Joe Ryan (William Travers), along with his business partner Sam Slade (William Sylvester). The duo are a pair of opportunistic salvagers, but their efforts are disrupted by an underwater volcanic eruption which causes a severe storm, damaging their ship. Needing repairs and supplies, they call in at nearby Nara Island, noting as they do some grotesque fish floating dead in the water.

The reception at Nara is not especially warm, except perhaps that of Sean (Vincent Winter), a young orphan who basically just follows Joe and Sam round for the rest of the movie (Social Services are not to be seen anywhere). It turns out the local harbour master is doing some illicit treasure hunting of his own and is keen to see the back of them, but since the storm there have been problems – one of his divers was fished out of the bay in a doornail-like condition, apparently scared to death, while another has disappeared entirely. The mystery is solved when the sea froths and the head of a sixty-foot-tall reptilian monster emerges!

Sean recognises it from local legends of immense sea beasts, but no-one listens to him much; instead, Joe and Sam bully the harbour master into paying them to get rid of the monster. A resourceful duo, they manage to ensnare it in a suitably large net and lash it to the deck of their boat – but now what? The University of Dublin is very interested in taking this unique scientific specimen from them, and a deal is struck for it to be delivered to the mainland. However, Joe is far from impressed with the money on offer and promptly reneges on this arrangement in order to sell the monster to a circus in central London. (One of the many unexpectedly satisfying things about Gorgo is the way in which it gradually reveals that its main human characters are actually quite unpleasant individuals.)

Having thus pulled a fast one on the Irish in the time-honoured English style, Joe and Sam deliver the monster, now christened Gorgo, to London where it is installed behind an electric fence. Astonished crowds are soon swirling around it (not much sign of Health and Safety, either). Some concerned boffins are soon on the scene, and eventually impart some worrying news to Joe and Sam (it’s not really clear why, given they’ve sold the monster by this point, but it certainly helps with the flow of the story) – their examinations have revealed that Gorgo is only a little baby monster, and the adult version will be vastly bigger and more powerful. Could this explain why all contact has been lost with everyone on Nara Island…?

Calling Gorgo ‘the British Godzilla‘ does have a degree of accuracy to it, as already noted, but things are actually a little more complicated than that. Gorgo‘s director was Eugene Lourie, who eight years earlier had been in charge of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, an American monster movie in which a dinosaur, resuscitated by an atom bomb, ends up running wild through New York. As is now quite well-known, this film was enthusiastically seized upon by a well-known Japanese film studio who did their own uncredited remake of it, which was of course Godzilla itself. So accusing Lourie of doing any sort of version of Godzilla seems to me to be very probably putting the cart before the horse. We should also consider the similarities between Gorgo and any main-sequence version of King Kong you care to mention – in both films, the monster is dragged unwillingly off to civilisation, and is basically sympathetic.

My point is that Gorgo isn’t as lazily derivative as it looks, for all that it concludes with a performer in a rubber monster suit lumbering through a model city – indeed, there are a couple of ways in which it anticipates the way this genre would end up going – firstly, it is one of the first colour English-language monster movies in this tradition, beating the first colour Godzilla film to the screen by a year. Secondly, and more importantly, it is the first notable movie where the monster wins, delivering an admonitory smack to human civilisation before returning from whence it came. It may not have the extraordinary bleak intensity of the original Godzilla, but this is still a film with a thought-through and serious message about the relationship between humans and the environment, and one which is still timely today – thoughtless exploitation is bound to end in disaster.

The fact that Gorgo’s script is so good – apart from the slow reveal of Joe and Sam’s real characters, it also manages the killer twist at the heart of the story with great aplomb – may explain why it was able to attract an equally good cast – William Travers was a bona fide film star at the time, being relatively fresh from the sentimental hammer-throwing melodrama Geordie. One suspects the American William Sylvester is mainly there to help sell the film in the States, though he is also an actor assured of a tiny piece of cinematic immortality, thanks to his role as Dr Floyd in 2001. Most of the rest of the cast are made up of the kind of distinguished British character actors who bring extra heft to whatever they appear in, including an uncredited Nigel Green – I have to say that this is a film very much of its time, with only one credited female performer (a stuntwoman) – there is, of course, one very crucial female character in the story, but she is three hundred feet tall and has no dialogue beyond roaring a lot.

If there is a department in which Gorgo falls down somewhat, it is of course the special effects: we are in the realm of suitamation and dodgy compositing, and this is before we even get onto the film’s voluminous use of stock footage (the US Marine Corps play a surprisingly large role in attempting to defend London from the looming threat of Ogra, Gorgo’s mum). But the film has picked up sufficient interest and charm for this not really to detract from the entertainment value of the climax, which is very impressively mounted, the population of London fleeing in panic and terror as Ogra tours various landmarks, demolishing each one in turn (the moment where Ogra tears down Big Ben is as iconic as any in the history of pulp British movies), the London underground collapsing and flooding, and so on. I would say this is as good as sequence as anything comparable in the genre.

‘Like nothing you’ve ever seen before!’ is the proud claim of the poster for Gorgo – well, even at the time that almost certainly wasn’t true. But Gorgo hits the sweet spot of genre film-making just about perfectly, balancing respect for the conventions of its genre with the need for intelligent innovation and a few genuine surprises. When this kind of film is made nowadays, it usually has impressive special effects and a script which is often only marginally coherent – Gorgo, on the other hand, may not have the greatest production values, but it does have a strong story with heart and something to say for itself – and I will choose that any day. A minor classic, as monster movies go, and a personal favourite of mine.

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Way out somewhere in the distant reaches of movie obscurity there are lost worlds of films that have not just been totally forgotten, they were never noticed in the first place. Whole TV channels (usually the ones with the high numbers) exist just to give this sort of film a (marginal) justification for existence, the sort of thing their original creators can barely have dreamt of when they were originally being made – usually as cheap and cheerful programme filler. (Which is essentially what they still are.)

The real joy of cruising through the high number channels is that occasionally you come across something really special (I use the word in a non-standard sense) that you previously had no conception even existed. So it was with Gerry Levy’s 1969 offering The Body Stealers, produced by perennial genre-movie also-rans Tigon – lest I sound too harsh, I should of course remind you that Tigon had the odd flash of brilliance, releasing Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General, which in itself would be enough earn any company a mention in the history of British genre cinema.

The Body Stealers is not quite bad enough to get Tigon stricken from the record again, but some might say it was a close thing. In any case, this is a different sort of film to those two I just mentioned, being ostensibly set in present-day Britain, where a parachute drop is in progress. Watching it are top brass George Sanders and a parachute engineer played by ‘guest star’ Neil Connery (his little brother, who shamelessly used this connection to have a sort of vestigial film career for quite a few years). All is going well, until weird radiophonic noises trouble the soundtrack and… the parachutes descend to the ground, unoccupied! The parachutists have vanished into thin air (Thin Air being one of The Body Stealers’ various alternate titles).

Well, roll credits, and after that, roll stock footage of an air show, where another parachute display is in progress. There are more oooo-eeee-oooo noises, this time accompanied by primitive optical printing special effects, and the parachute display team have vanished too. An observer on the ground reports seeing them fade away into nonexistence, but their C.O. isn’t having any of it. ‘Whatever my men get up to, and they usually do, fading away isn’t it,’ he declares, the sort of line that makes you want to send everyone involved back to have another go.

Well, senior air force bod Allan Cuthbertson (probably best remembered as the twitching colonel from the Gourmet Night episode of Fawlty Towers) takes a break from letching over his secretarial staff to convene an inquiry, and decrees that an outside investigator be brought in. Connery suggests he knows the man for the job, but he could be difficult to find…

Thirty seconds later, they find him: he is Bob Megan, played by slab-faced B-movie lead and ubiquitous voice-over artist Patrick Allen. Whatever Bob’s professional qualifications (everyone just calls him Bob, just as everyone calls Connery’s character Jim, lending the film a peculiarly informal air), they end up being rather secondary to the fact he is basically a borderline sex pest, apparently incapable of meeting a young woman without macking on her in a horribly corny way.

Naturally, the plot ends up revolving around Bob’s mysterious ladykilling talents, as not only does he win (very easily) the affections of female boffin Hilary Dwyer, he also catches the eye of a mysterious blonde whom he meets lying on the beach one night and who has the odd talent of being able to vanish without a trace. Could she possibly be connected to the mystery of the vanishing parachutists – especially when, as senior boffin Maurice Evans suggests, the whole thing could have something to do with Outer Space?

Yes, it is that Maurice Evans. One minute you’re giving a brilliant performance in the original Planet of the Apes, one of the greatest SF films ever made, then before you know it you wind up in a pile of tosh like this. He must have had a really demanding mortgage, is the only explanation I can think of.

I should make it clear that The Body Stealers really is tosh, and it’s not even good tosh at that. This is the kind of film where you quickly learn to be pleasantly surprised when any element of it is not preposterous, clumsy, or just horribly inappropriate. One key plot twist, for example, comes when Jim reveals that Bob’s new mystery girlfriend doesn’t show up in photographs. Well, it’s a daft idea, but daft ideas fuel most of these British SF B-movies – the thing that makes you roll your eyes is the fact that in order to work this into the plot, Jim is revealed to be the kind of guy who goes out lurking on the beach of an evening, secretly taking photos of people without telling them.

I would say this is highly questionable behaviour, but it’s nothing compared to Bob’s relentless pursuit of any young woman who crosses his path – never mind the endless hopeless pick-up lines, he’s the kind of guy who goes for a snog within three minutes of meeting a woman. The worst thing is that the plot demands that they put up only a token resistance and all end up falling in love with him. Seriously, this is the kind of film that gave generations of young men entirely the wrong idea about how to talk to women: here they are almost all entirely decorative, recreational objects, whose response to being endlessly patronised is to fall jealously in love with whoever’s responsible.

The horrific gender politics of The Body Stealers really eclipse most of the rest of the plot, which I suppose has a certain sort of B-movie guile to it, in that it largely manages to dodge using expensive special effects – the one big prop, the alien spaceship, is a second-hand one bought from Milton Subotsky. But even here it’s all just corny, low-stakes stuff, mostly resolved by people standing around in rooms expositing at each other. (Hilary Dwyer is not too bad, I suppose, and does a good scream during the climax.) There is a half-decent cast here, but no-one makes much impression – Neil Connery, on the other hand, reveals again that whatever Sean’s limitations as an actor, he still got all the family’s allocation of talent.

On the other hand, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy The Body Stealers at all: I was amused by the film’s attempts to economise, while desperately trying to hide the fact it was made for next to no money; I was rather tickled by the efforts of two blokes called Bob and Jim to tackle such a cosmic metaphysical enigma. The film does manage to take itself seriously, which is an impressive achievement all things consider – but, these days at least, I doubt it will manage to persuade even the most sympathetic audience to do the same. Tosh of the purest variety, but hard to entirely dislike.

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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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