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Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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