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Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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There are some films which are timely, other films which are timeless; very few are consistently both. Like any other sane person, I was quite content for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to remain the latter, but – the world being what it is – some great cycle seems to be on the verge of completion and one watches it now with a queasy sense of recognition; the realisation that some things, perhaps, never really go away.

The movie starts innocuously enough, with RAF officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), on secondment to Burpelson Air Force base, receiving some slightly eccentric orders from his commanding officer General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden). It seems that Ripper has taken the concept of personal initiative a little too far and ordered the B-52s of the 843rd Bomb Wing to launch an unprovoked and unauthorised nuclear attack on the USSR.

Flying one of the planes is Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens), who is slightly surprised to be sent into action but determined to do his duty. (For latter-day audiences the scenes on the bomber are further distinguished by the fact that Kong’s crew includes the future voices of Scott Tracy of International Rescue and a Dark Lord of the Sith.) The bomber sets course for its target, with all appropriate counter-measures activated.

Needless to say, this is all the cause of some consternation in the Pentagon’s war room, where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) struggles to make sense of what is going on, trying to keep the Soviets from doing something intemperate in response, and attempting to keep his more excitably belligerent generals under control. As Ripper has predicted, the hawkish faction led by General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) has worked out that the only way to avoid the devastation of America by a Soviet counter-attack is to support Ripper’s planes with a full-scale offensive.

Muffley isn’t having any of that, and attempts to keep things reasonable, while sending troops into Burpelson to capture Ripper and extract the code signal required to recall the B-52s. But matters are complicated by the revelation by the Soviet ambassador (Peter Bull) that the Russians have recently completed a ‘doomsday machine’ intended to obliterate all life on the surface of Earth should their country come under nuclear attack. Looking on the bright side throughout all of this is the President’s science advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers yet again), who has his own ideas about how people might spend their time in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust…

We throw the word genius around with great abandon these days, but there is certainly a case to be made that Dr Strangelove is a demonstration of what can happen when two mighty talents collaborate in near-perfect harmony. Dr Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies, obviously, but as such it is fuelled by the contrast between the absurdity of its characters and the deadpan, near-documentary naturalism of the situations which it depicts. Much is always written about truly great movies such as this; it is quite well-known that Kubrick set out to make a ‘straight’ drama based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, but found the scenario lent itself all too easily to dark comedy. (A sense of what the ‘straight’ version of Strangelove might have been like can be gained from the movie Fail-Safe, which tells a very similar story without humour, and came out a few months after Kubrick’s film – partly because Kubrick hit the rival production with an injunction in order to ensure his movie came out first.) I suppose we must be grateful to Columbia Pictures for taking a risk on what must have seemed like a very questionable proposition – the American President, the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and the presence in the US administration of former Nazis were not commonly the stuff of satire in the early 1960s.

Then again, it was apparently Columbia who specified that Kubrick cast Sellers in the movie, and in multiple roles, too. Reports suggest that Sellers was originally intended to play Kong as well, and possibly Turgidson too: whatever you think of this idea (and personally I find it hard to imagine anyone other than Pickens and Scott in those roles), we are certainly left with three brilliant comic creations – Mandrake, the out-of-his-depth RAF officer still talking about ‘prangs’ and fondly recalling his Spitfire; Muffley, the beautifully underplayed politician; and Strangelove himself – initially very much a background figure, until he develops into an extraordinary grotesque in the final moments of the film – other cast members can be seen visibly trying to suppress their own laughter as the doctor contends with his own body’s rebellious, fascist inclinations.

Sellers is assisted by a superb, brilliantly quotable script, stuffed with great lines – ‘You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!’, ‘You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca Cola company’, ‘A feller could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff,’ ‘One of our base commanders… he went and did a silly thing,’ and so on. Then there are the visual gags – American soldiers slaughtering each other in front of a sign saying PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION, and the surreal image of Kong, whooping and hollering as tumbles to his fate, nuclear warhead gripped between his thighs.

It’s one more piece of phallic symbolism in a film which functions, in a rather odd way, if not quite as a sex comedy then certainly a film about libidos running amok. It opens, after all, with a rather suggestive scene of planes refuelling in flight, set to the strains of ‘Try a little tenderness,’ General Ripper is obsessed with the purity of his bodily fluids (it is fairly clear which in particular concerns him), and even the Russians are impressed by Strangelove’s plan to survive the aftermath of armageddon through the creation of, basically, subterranean sex farms (‘You have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor’). There is, of course, only one woman in the cast, Turgidson’s secretary and mistress, played by Tracy Reed. Most of the rest of it is populated by unhinged alpha males.

‘I couldn’t help thinking about Donald Trump,’ said the woman next to me as Dr Strangelove concluded its latest revival screening (part of a run of most of Kubrick’s work from the 60s and 70s). I could really see her point. We are, as I type, hours away from a summit about the control of nuclear weapons, taking place between two men who at times seem more grotesque than any of the comic monsters in Kubrick’s film. And yet here we are again, over fifty years later, still miraculously un-nuked but with that possibility still very much on the table. almost feels like a timely movie again; I suppose there is some consolation in the fact that it is also such a timeless classic.

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A quarter of a century ago my then girlfriend and I decided to go and spend our Saturday night watching Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, mainly because it seemed like the kind of thing couples were doing at the time. This was certainly the case at the Odeon in Hull, as the first time we turned up the screening had sold out before we arrived, and we ended up going to see Lord Attenborough’s Chaplin instead (which, truth be told, may well be a better movie, if less mechanically romantic). However, we were young and bloody-minded, and neither of us had yet figured out that the whole traditional relationship thing was possibly not for us, so we went back the following weekend and saw the Saturday matinee.

There’s a bit half-way through The Bodyguard where Costner takes Houston out for the night and, in an unusually interesting move for a Kevin Costner character, takes her to see a black-and-white Japanese movie from 1961, the title of which is not given on-screen. Hence it was that I was the only person in the theatre laughing at the meta-gag of characters in a movie called The Bodyguard going to see another (much better) movie also called The Bodyguard – or, in the original Japanese, Yojimbo.

Yeah, I may have been going to see Whitney Houston movies in my late teens, but my fate was probably already sealed by that point, for I had spent much of my middle teens watching movies like Yojimbo, directed by (of course) Akira Kurosawa. Or perhaps this is less of a surprise than I am insinuating, for it’s not as though we’re discussing some art-house obscurity – in terms of general fame and influence, this is surely one of the most significant Japanese movies of all time, with only Seven Samurai and the original Godzilla ahead of it.

Yojimbo stars that most celebrated of Japanese actors, Toshiro Mifune, in an iconic role as a nameless, drifting samurai swordsman. As the film opens he is wandering aimlessly through the desolate Japanese countryside in the middle of the 19th century (it’s a little startling to consider the film was set only a century or so in the past when it was released). However, he comes upon a small town paralysed by a power struggle between two rival gangs. Partly motivated by some vague moral instinct, and partly (it seems) to amuse himself, the swordsman decides to ‘save’ the town by orchestrating the destruction of both gangs and their leaders. The local innkeeper (Eijiro Tono), the closest thing he has to a confidante in town, immediately concludes he is a madman only intent on causing chaos and destruction.

In any case, his plan hits a number of snags, firstly when the local government inspector pays a visit (causing the gangsters to arrange a hasty truce so as not to attract the attention of the authorities), and later when the temporary cessation in hostilities looks like becoming a more long-term pause. Most serious of all is the appearance of the brother of one of the gangsters, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai, who may perhaps have wanted a word with whoever did his picture on the poster), who has been spending some time on the other side of the Pacific and returned with a classic souvenir of American culture: a handgun…

(Rather appropriately, given there are some allusions in the subtitles to Unosuke apparently meaning rabbit in Japanese, there is a danger of going down a bit of a rabbit hole here about just when Yojimbo is set and exactly what kind of heat the gangster is packing. People who know more about such things than me (not a small group, by the way) have pronounced that the weapon in question is a Smith & Wesson Model 2: however, this only went into production in 1876, ten years after the Meiji restoration. Wikipedia suggests an 1860 setting, based on the introductory captions of the first American dub of the film; the implication certainly seems to be that it takes place in the last years of the Shogunate. The gun is totemic, anyway. (I believe this is what is known as a digression.))

Some people who are really refined in their tastes complain that Kurosawa’s fame as a director is mainly due to his willingness to make films in, for want of a better word, an occidental idiom (I am avoiding the word ‘western’ as it is likely to confuse the issue), and that he is not as properly Japanese a film-maker as, say, Yasujiro Ozu (whose films were not released internationally as they were ‘too Japanese’). Maybe they have a point – for many people, Yojimbo is most recognisable as the source material of A Fistful of Dollars, the Sergio Leone movie which launched the spaghetti western craze and the career of Clint Eastwood (it also spawned a not terribly good 1996 Bruce Willis movie, Last Man Standing). However, what’s considerably less well-known is that Kurosawa admitted the plot of the movie is drawn from a story by Dashiell Hammett, so the American flavour is baked into Yojimbo. The presence of Nakadai’s character is surely an acknowledgement of this – this isn’t just a movie which inspired westerns, on some level it was conceived of as a western.

Of course, it is many other things as well: it starts off as a very black comedy, and perhaps also a wry comment on some of Kurosawa’s earlier movies. Mifune’s character is not a noble, heroic figure from the same mould as Kambei (of Seven Samurai), but a scruffy cynic who initially seems to be interfering in the affairs of the town for rather dubious motives (he vaguely comments that it would be good to get rid of the gangsters, but also notes that it’s his job to be paid for killing). It’s only the fact that he seems to have some kind of integrity, and of course the fact that he is played by Mifune, who is always ferociously cool, that marks him out as in any way better than the venal, morally bankrupt people running the town. Only Unosuke seems in any way similar to him; this is why the gunslinger is really the swordsman’s main antagonist in this movie.

However, as the story progresses it seems that the swordsman becomes aware that this is not just game: innocent people are caught up in the struggle between the gangsters. And it is here that Mifune, perhaps inevitably, reveals that there is a well-hidden core of decency to his character. He professes to hate pathetic people, but it is his decision to help a young family that almost causes his downfall, and his inability to abandon an ally which provokes the climactic battle of the film. And even here he unexpectedly reveals the capacity for mercy, sparing the life of a young man with romantic delusions he briefly encountered at the start of the film. There is no honour or glory in death, the film suggests, there is just death, and it hurts. Even when all is said and done, the swordsman’s mask slips back into place – ‘Now we’ll have some peace and quiet around here,’ he observes, deadpan, at the end of the film, having just single-handedly slaughtered most of the town’s remaining population.

Performance-wise, this is Mifune’s film from start to finish, and he effortlessly dominates it (with Kurosawa’s connivance, naturally). Even the great Takashi Shimura does not make much of an impression as a lovelorn sake brewer in league with one of the gangs – only Nakadai comes close to challenging Mifune, which is surely as it should be. Most of the time Mifune is only competing for attention against Kurosawa’s typically energetic camerawork and editing, and Masaru Sato’s striking, angular score. The music is kind of jaunty and chaotic, as befits a film about a off-kilter, chaotic world.

You can see why Yojimbo was such a big hit that it led to a sequel and numerous remakes, official and otherwise. On one level it is a superbly made piece of entertainment, with moments of comedy, pathos, and action, with a very satisfying structure to the story. But there are also glimpses of more serious issues here, commentary on the state of the world and the people in it. If it seems to be just as cynical as its anti-hero about the characters – well, just as he reveals an unexpected soft streak, so the film treats its characters as flawed human beings, not one-dimensional cartoons. I imagine this is one of those movies that will be around for as long as our culture endures.

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I’m all for people getting a bit evangelical and sharing the things that they love, but even I have to admit there’s usually a time and a place. In recent years I have been regularly amused and bemused by the good folk at the Horror Channel’s attempts to bring Roger Corman’s 1964 version of The Masque of the Red Death to a new audience, mainly by screening it in wildly inappropriate time-slots: 11am during the school holidays, for instance, or eight o’clock on a Sunday morning. Prefacing the movie with the announcement that ‘this film contains scenes which may be unsuitable for younger children’ hardly gets them off the hook; there would be nothing more certain to make me settle down in front of the screen as a younger child than hearing such a disclaimer. (Though it is of course not just this film that gets eccentrically scheduled: The Devil Rides Out has turned up as the Monday matinee in the past, while Quatermass and the Pit was on in the Sunday teatime slot just the other week.)

I suppose you could argue that it’s the ideas, not the visuals, of The Masque of the Red Death that make it the film that it is, and that your average nine-year-old isn’t going to pay much attention to those – I first saw this film as a teenager, and while I was blown away by some of the more fantastical imagery, the film’s musings on good and evil and the fate of the world sort of went over my head. Even then, though, it clearly seemed to me to be by far the best of the Corman-Price cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, which it comes near the end of.

The film is set in late-mediaeval Italy, with the land ravaged by plague. Local despot Prince Prospero (Vincent Price, obviously), making one of his usual trips to terrorise the peasantry, is horrified to see that the dreaded red death has begun to spread amongst the villagers of his domain, and resolves to retire within his castle walls until the disease has run its course. Mainly to pass the time, he takes with him pious young peasant girl Francesca (an 18-year-old Jane Asher, in her pre-cakes Macca’s-girlfriend period); the prospect of destroying her faith in God amuses him (also he plans on having her boyfriend and father fight to the death for the entertainment of his cronies).

Prospero, as you may have been able to gather, is a toweringly nasty piece of work, but in his own way he is equally devout in his beliefs: it’s just that he is a devil-worshipper who believes that God is dead and Satan holds dominion over the world. Cruelty and viciousness are practically religious duties for Prospero, and he has done his best to encourage others in the faith – particularly his lover Juliana (Hazel Court), who is not best pleased when Prospero brings another woman home with him.

Well, Prospero sets about educating Francesca in what he sees as the deeper truths of existence, while at the same time planning for a grand masquerade ball to be held in the castle. Meanwhile, Francesca’s presence has made Juliana contemplate making a deeper commitment to Satanism, while another subplot concerns a dwarf acrobat planning a cunning revenge on another nobleman who has been cruel to his lover. Also occasionally glimpsed is a figure robed and cowled and cowled in crimson, who speaks somewhat cryptically of deliverance and fate. Could it be that Prospero’s dark master will be putting in an appearance at the masque? Or has he inadvertantly summoned up something even worse?

This movie was made in the UK, largely using home-grown talent (as well as Asher, stalwart character performers like Nigel Green, Robert Brown and Patrick Magee appear, with an uncredited John Westbrook doing really excellent work in the title role), which results in a well-played and very good-looking film, even if the slightly garish depiction of mediaeval life is a bit cod-Hollywood (the cinematography was the work of a fairly young Nicolas Roeg).

Historical realism is not really on the agenda, anyway, as this is a much more thoughtful, impressionistic kind of horror film. The slightly facile way to describe Masque of the Red Death is that it looks like the result of a torrid get-together between Ingmar Bergman and the people at Hammer Films (Corman repeatedly delayed production, as he was aware people would assume he was ripping off The Seventh Seal), but the truth is that this film is the product of a slightly different sensibility than the one at Hammer: Hammer were making classy costume dramas which they sold to a youthful audience by the inclusion of elements of gore and fantasy, but Corman mostly eschews fake blood and easy shocks.

Instead, the success of the film comes from a consistently-maintained atmosphere of moral and intellectual decadence, and a strong sense of impending doom as the red death draws closer and closer. Prospero isn’t just evil: he’s clearly having a whale of a time being evil, and it’s this which is as disturbing as anything which happens in the film (and some fairly serious stuff goes down, especially considering this movie was made in 1964).

Much of the work on the script was done by Charles Beaumont, although the illness that would eventually kill him meant he was unable to complete the project. Beaumont is probably best-known for his work as one of the three main writers on the original version of The Twilight Zone, and there’s a very real sense in which Masque of the Red Death almost feels like an extended episode of that series, made in lavish colour. Personifications of abstract ideas stalk the land, characters engage in lengthy discussions about good and evil, there is a killer twist ending. And the dialogue has an extraordinarily poetic quality to it – ‘I want to help save your soul, so you can join me in the glories of hell,’ Prospero tells Francesca, while Juliana later declares ‘I have tasted the beauties of terror.’

It may look a little iffy written down, but delivered by these actors it really sings, and no-one gives a more operatic performance than Vincent Price. No-one, I would say, could have been better suited to this depiction of playful, apparently civilised evil; and Price is a good enough technician to leave the tiniest cracks through which the remains of Prospero’s humanity can be glimpsed – he seems genuinely moved and unsettled by Francesca’s faith, and the film’s big pay-off comes in his great moment of pride and hubris, when he comes to realise there may be limits to his wisdom and understanding after all.

Most of the Corman-Price-Poe films are competent entertainments or amusing diversions, but this one takes the series to a higher level, filled with memorable imagery and striking ideas. In the first rank of Vincent Price’s horror film career, the fact is that I’ve never seen another film quite like this one: if The Masque of the Red Death doesn’t qualify as a classic horror movie, I don’t know what does.

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I think it makes a certain kind of sense to stick to what you’re good at. If so, then I am surprised there has not been more of an outcry about the British film industry’s enthusiasm for making syrupy-soft allegedly life-affirming comedy dramas aimed at old people, fairly insipid rom-coms, and dour costume dramas, for our record in this area is not much better than that of many other nations. No, what we should be producing more of – and I think a target of two or three a year is not unreasonable – is apocalyptic science fiction films, because there was a time when we led the world in films of this kind (well, good ones, anyway). Nowadays we barely even seem to bother: the last proper one I can think of is 28 Days Later, which is not far off being twenty years old (the boom in zombie movies it kick-started is still going, of course: see what I mean, we’re good at this stuff).

Near the top of any stack of British doomsday films is Val Guest’s 1961 movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire (NB: title may be figurative). It sounds like a rather excitable B-movie made in the wake of The Day the Earth Stood Still – and there are plenty of these, such as the Italian film The Day the Sky Exploded – but, being a British film, it is made with healthy amounts of thought, restraint, and good old-fashioned phlegm.

The film’s main gimmick, inasmuch as it has one, becomes apparent from the start: in the sequences that frame the story, the black-and-white picture has been tinted ochre, representing the burning heat throughout these scenes. We find journalist Pete Stenning (Edward Judd) wandering through the streets of a near-deserted London: the Thames has virtually dried up in temperatures of over a hundred degrees. Stenning goes into the offices of his newspaper and (his typewriter ink having turned to paste) proceeds to dictate the story of what has befallen the world…

In flashback, we return to more conventional times, with the men (and they are virtually all men) of the press preoccupied with a string of apparently unconnected natural disasters: floods and earthquakes, mostly. Some planes are also reporting navigational problems. Amidst all this news of the Americans and Soviets both having recently tested enormously powerful nuclear weapons at opposite ends of the globe are only a minor item. But all the news seems trivial to Stenning, who is having something of a breakdown – his marriage having ended, he is concerned for the future of his son, and is drinking too much. His job is in peril and it is only the connivance of his friend and colleague Maguire (Leo McKern) that keeps him employed.

The authorities at the air ministry and the meteorological office stonewall any attempts to find out what’s going on, and Stenning’s own enquiries only put him on the wrong side of secretary Jean Craig (Janet Munro). But strange events continue: there is an unheralded, unscheduled lunar eclipse, then a protracted heat-wave. Then a stifling heat-mist blankets much of the world, followed by savage hurricanes and typhoons. Stenning has (almost inevitably) got it together with Jean by this point, and it is from her that he learns the reality of what is really going on – the nuclear tests have toppled the world on its axis, and caused it to shift its orbit, taking it much closer to the sun…

There is a sense in which watching The Day the Earth Caught Fire is like looking back into a very different world, which has now almost vanished. These are the sixties before they really started to swing: the mood is still stolid, post-war, sensible. Most importantly, newspapers are still the dominant media, and most of the film is centred around the offices of Stenning’s rag. Normally when a film focuses on a paper, it’s a fictitious one (unless we’re talking about a based-on-fact movie like The Post); one of the possibly-startling elements of this film is that Stenning works for the Daily Express, an actual newspaper (one guesses that the Express movie critic was rather positive about this film). Even more surprising, the editor of the Express in the film is played (not especially well, it must be said) by Arthur Christiansen, who was the real-world editor of the paper for over twenty years. These days it is customary to dismiss the Daily Express as being one of the more excitably nutty organs of the right-wing media, so there is a degree of cognitive dissonance in seeing its staff portrayed so heroically; a scare story about the Earth falling into the sun would probably qualify as a quite a subdued piece by the paper’s current standards – no doubt it would turn out to be the fault of the EU, or Tony Blair. (An unintentionally funny moment, from a modern perspective, comes when Christiansen declares – even as the fall of civilisation takes a big step closer – ‘We must keep the tone of the paper optimistic!’)

The film is also very much of its time in its concern over the proliferation of nuclear weapons – something it shares with another great British film from about ten years earlier, Seven Days to Noon – but it also seems almost prophetic in the way it depicts wide-scale climate change as a result of human foolishness. Everything is rather exaggerated for dramatic effect, naturally, but many chords are struck – the authorities initially refuse to be pinned down on the exact cause of the punishingly hot weather, and the characters seem almost overwhelmed by the immense implications of what is happening in the film. There is also something chillingly plausible about the various reactions as the situation worsens – there are mentions of black market water dealers, severe rationing, outbreaks of typhus in London, and so on.

It’s all handled in a downbeat, naturalistic style which serves to keep the story unsettlingly credible. However, the script (by Guest and Wolf Mankowitz) isn’t quite wall-to-wall doom and despair – woven in there, alongside the main plotline, is the story of Stenning and Jean’s romance, which is equally plausible and smartly written. Edward Judd gets the ‘introducing’ credit in this film; he gives a great leading man’s performance of the kind he would continue to produce in a number of other British SF and fantasy films in the 1960s. Munro inevitably has a rather more secondary role, but she is also appealing and plausible. Leo McKern is saddled with the gravitas-provision and exposition-delivery character part in this film (the kind of thing someone like Paul Giamatti does nowadays), but also manages to find some interesting stuff to work with there. For modern audiences, there’s also a nice moment when a pre-stardom Michael Caine (aged 27) has an uncredited cameo as a police officer: his face is never clearly seen, but that voice is unmistakable.

This is one of those films which is not especially celebrated nowadays, but which seems to me to cast an extremely long shadow – it certainly anticipates several of the effects-driven SF disaster movies that Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin have been regularly producing for many years now, but I can also discern something of its tone and imagery in many other pieces of British and American SF – not just films, but also TV shows and even comic books. This is a smart, serious film, even if the print in wide circulation via DVDs and so on diffuses Guest’s original, carefully ambiguous ending to create something a little more hopeful. The Day the Earth Caught Fire isn’t about hope; it’s about anger, and fear, but in that very reserved British way. Not just a great British SF film, but a great British film, full stop.

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If you’re going to do a classic horror movie revival, then the chances are it’s going to happen on Halloween, and this year in particular it feels especially appropriate to disinter a movie by the late George A Romero, who passed away a few months ago. So it was that the main screening last night at the Ultimate Picture Palace (I’m virtually certain the name is intended ironically – if not, someone needs to have a quiet word) was of Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Oh well, you can’t have everything.

Nevertheless, clawing itself a place on the schedule in the teatime slot was, indeed, a showing of Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, although technically this was not Halloween-related: the owner of the UPP has been running a series of her favourite films, just ‘cos, and apparently Night of the Living Dead is one of them. So there you go.

There’s a bit in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood where the hapless director declares that if you want to establish yourself as a commercially-successful film director, the place to start is with a horror movie, as – historically speaking – no other genre has the same kind of budget-to-profit ratio. The long tradition of micro-budget horror movies turning out to be massive money-spinners found one of its greatest expressions with Night of the Living Dead (the fact it in parts resembles one of Ed Wood’s own Z-movies does not seem entirely coincidental, somehow).

Romero was making TV commercials in his native Pittsburgh but wanted to branch out, and this was the result: largely filmed at weekends, funded by members of the production company, and featuring a largely non-professional cast, it is almost the definition of guerrilla film-making – the premise is hardly very original, either, owing various bits of narrative DNA to sources as diverse as I Am Legend (the author of which thought Romero’s movie was ‘kind of cornball’) and Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (Romero thought that employing zombies in your workforce was bad business practice and would inevitably lead to problems).

The movie opens on a Sunday evening in Spring, as siblings Johnny and Barbra (Russell Streiner and Judith O’Dea) visit a rural cemetery to pay their respects at their father’s grave. Barbra finds the place creepy, which Johnny mocks her for, but the joke is soon on him as he is savagely attacked by a total stranger who wanders into the area. Barbra flees, taking refuge in a remote farmhouse not far away.

There she is joined by Ben (Duane Jones), a young man who has also been a target for mysterious, random violence. Soon people, or creatures, like the one from the cemetery are clustering outside the house and looking for a way in. Having attempted to fortify the place single-handed, Ben is somewhat disgruntled to learn that another five people have been hiding in the cellar all the time, and a tense atmosphere develops between the different survivors.

TV reports indicate that radiation brought to Earth from space is causing the recently deceased to reanimate and devour the living, and that the safest course of action is to get to a rescue centre where medical support and armed protection is available. But can the group work together long enough to escape from the house, with the numbers of the living dead growing outside?

So, here we are, at an epochal moment in modern culture: the very first zombie apocalypse (even if they’re never actually referred to as zombies, and at the end of the film the authorities seem to have matters well under control). It would be great to be able to report that this is a film which lives up to its place in history, transcending its low-budget Z-movie origins with skill and subtlety.

Alas, that isn’t quite the case: during the screening I was at, the silence was more frequently broken by laughter than cries of alarm or distress, and I could kind of understand why. To a modern audience coming in fresh off the street, Night of the Living Dead doesn’t resemble a great horror movie so much as a parody of bad horror movies, with dubious special effects, sub-professional performances from most of the cast, and somewhat overwrought music and direction.

Apparently, at one point Romero’s intention was to hedge his bets by making a genuine horror-comedy, and to begin with it looks like he is deliberately playing with audience expectations and the tropes of the genre – a young couple drive out into a remote part of the countryside, which is how a thousand cautionary tales begin, but they turn out to be brother and sister, and illicit hanky-panky is the last thing on their minds. The first of the monsters to appear does so quite understatedly, wandering around in the back of shot for some time. Elsewhere Romero seems to be deliberately playing to cliche, with Barbra a stereotypical damsel in distress, unable to cope with the situation – almost to the point where she disappears out of the plot, present but barely participating.

(Seriously, Barbra is absolutely the last person you want to be stuck with in the middle of a zombipocalypse, as she is almost literally useless and rather annoying to boot. Ben certainly seems to find her rather hard work: the biggest laugh at the UPP showing came at the moment where all the sobbing and complaining and general hysteria gets too much and he punches her out.)

You really have to bear in mind that this film was made at a time when American horror movies consisted to a large extent of Vincent Price brooding over his late wife’s portrait, with additional dialogue provided by Edgar Allen Poe. There’s a low-fi rawness about Night of the Living Dead that is wholly new to the genre at this point, and you can almost sense Romero finding his voice as the film goes on: the real drama is not really focused on the ghouls outside, but the fraught relationships between the human characters. The hackneyed stock music cues fade away during the movie’s more exuberant moments of gratuitous nastiness, replaced by pulsing radiophonic growls and shrieks.

However, if Romero was trying to make some kind of satirical statement with Night of the Living Dead, it’s not entirely clear what it is – it’s certainly much less self-evident than the subtext about consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, for instance. Is it on some level about American society at the height of the Vietnam war? Is it about the Civil Rights struggle? It’s genuinely hard to tell – although it is striking that, for most of the film, the fact that the tough, bright and capable male lead is African-American is not commented on at all. Only the nihilistic twist at the very end of the film seems to acquire any additional significance from Duane Jones’ ethnicity.

In the end, Night of the Living Dead is one of those movies which is massively important without actually being especially accomplished – personally, I can appreciate its role in the development of the horror movie, but I think Dawn of the Dead is a technically much superior film in every respect. But context is everything. This clumsy, primitive thing crawled out of the wilds of Pennsylvania nearly fifty years ago, and the virus it was incubating has gone on to become a major part of the cultural landscape. For all its obvious flaws, this remains the index case, and it still retains its power to disturb.

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