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Posts Tagged ‘George Peppard’

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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As usual, the film companies have taken pity and not bothered to release any big movies over the Christmas period, thus allowing us a little bit longer to consider the finer works of some of the people who have left this dimension in the last twelve months. Having recently doffed my figurative cap to the late Peter Vaughan, how else could one follow this but by adhering strictly to alphabetical order and paying a small but not unattractively formed tribute to another of the year’s more notable departees, Mr Robert Vaughn?

Vaughn split his career between cinema and TV before it was really acceptable, with plenty of famous movies and iconic TV shows on his CV: The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt, The Towering Inferno, Superman III, The Man from UNCLE, The A-Team, Hustle… However, if we’re short of one thing at this time of year, then it’s surely knockabout late-70s-influenced space opera, and so in remembrance of Mr Vaughn I thought we might cast our minds back and consider Jimmy Murakami’s 1980 movie Battle Beyond The Stars.

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Our story takes place a long time in the future, in a galaxy quite a long way away, where the peaceful natives of the planet Akir find themselves being hassled by interstellar despot Sador of the Malmori (John Saxon) and his mutant raider henchmen. Being a despot with a well-organised schedule, Sador informs the Akira that he will be back in a week to conquer their planet, as he has some other tyrannising to do in the meantime. Cue concerned discussions amongst the Akira, and the decision to send bold young fellow Shad (Richard Thomas) off in their one and only spaceship to recruit some mercenaries to help defend the village – sorry, I mean planet…

Is this sounding a bit familiar, plot-wise? Well, it should, because… hmmm. Firstly, we should take a moment to pay tribute to the wisdom of producer Roger Corman and screenwriter John Sayles. Corman is a legendary figure in the low-budget exploitation movie business, but justly admired for his willingness to leave his writers and directors alone as long as their films hit the requisite quotas of whatever exploitation ingredients he was after. Hence, they are quite often much more interesting movies than you might expect, and some very distinguished people started their careers working on Corman movies (as we shall see). It was this policy that allowed Sayles to write a script which is much more inventive and knowing than could easily have been the case.

You couldn’t turn round in a cinema in the late 70s without falling over a homage/rip-off clearly inspired by a George Lucas stellar conflict project (how far we have come since then), and the question was obviously one of how to make Battle Beyond The Stars distinctive and less obviously a rip-off. Sayles hit upon the solution of diverting everyone’s attention by making it an equally blatant rip-off of another, equally famous film, The Magnificent Seven. It would be lazy critical shorthand to describe Battle Beyond The Stars as The Magnificent Seven in Space. But it would also be perfectly true.

The real cleverness of this ploy, if you ask me, is that it means the movie is essentially remaking Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai again, and quite apart from the fact that this is almost never a bad idea, it puts this film on a much more level pegging with that other stellar conflict movie which we’re being quite careful not to name, for that itself was famously inspired by another Kurosawa film, Hidden Fortress. Sayles clearly knows exactly what he’s doing – as well as various tips of the hat to The Magnificent Seven, the script references elements of Seven Samurai which didn’t make it into the 1960 remake (plus, of course, the villagers in peril are called Akira).

Chief amongst the loving little references is, of course, the presence of Robert Vaughn as Gelt, the most experienced and lethal of the mercenaries gathered to defend the Akira. It’s not exactly a reprise of his role as Lee from The Magnificent Seven, but it’s close enough, and if Vaughn found appearing in a low-budget SF B-movie in any way beneath him, you can’t tell that from his performance, which is immaculate. Elsewhere the film looks a little further afield, and isn’t afraid to go properly SF on the audience: apart from Shad and his techie love interest (Darlanne Fluegel), the team includes Gelt, a wise-cracking trucker called Space Cowboy, a cloned telepathic hive-mind entity, Cayman the space-whaling slaver lizard, two dwarves who communicate through manipulating the local temperature, and a warrior woman called Saint-Exmin. It’s a toss up whether the characters are any more of a mixed bag than the cast assembled to play them, which includes one of The Waltons, two bona fide movie stars in Vaughn and George Peppard, Morgan Woodward (probably best known for playing a nutty Federation captain in an episode of Star Trek only I seem to like), a handful of anonymous character actors, and Sybil Danning, an actress who started her career appearing in, erm, specialist films for German gentlemen. (When this movie got a UK release I distinctly recall Danning doing the publicity circuit to promote it, which must have been the only time anyone from The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried turned up on Saturday morning kids’ TV.)

Battle Beyond The Stars arguably surpasses many of its late 70s brethren in its imagination and its capacity to build some of its SF ideas into the plot, rather than just treating them as set dressing: the various alien powers of the hive-mind and the thermal dwarves do end up influencing the action, one way or another. Being only 100 minutes or so long means that the film never has time to get stale or particularly repetitive; it may not all quite be killer, but there’s certainly no filler – there is a consistently high level of inventiveness and wit that makes it easy to overlook the obviously very low budget. The ebullient score is another major plus – one of the very first works of James Horner, later to go on to score two of the better Star Trek movies and Krull (plus, if you really must, Titanic and Avatar).

In fact, the only thing that keeps this film from being a real gem is the slightly ropey nature of the special effects, primarily the space battles. Now, some of the ship designs are interesting and most of the models are okay, but the special effects people responsible just don’t have the technical capacity to put more than one spaceship in any given shot, which is a bit of a problem in any film with as many space dogfights as this one: it’s the equivalent of trying to film a drama with the camera locked in a static medium shot. The rest of the film is good enough for this not to completely torpedo it, and given that the special effects guy involved was James Cameron, later to direct The Terminator and Aliens (plus, if you really must, Titanic and Avatar), we must assume he was doing the best he could.

A lot of homaging and ripping-off has gone on over the past nearly-forty years since George Lucas had his bright idea; it continues to this day and shows no signs of stopping. The quality of the results has frankly been rather variable, with actual possession of the rights apparently no guarantee of a good movie being the end result. Battle Beyond The Stars gets much closer than many better-resourced movies to capturing the same imagination and free-wheeling sense of fun that Lucas did in his original films: this is the movie that deserved the big budget, all-star remake, not The Magnificent Seven (which they got right the first time round anyway). One would have thought James Cameron would have felt some obligation… but no, apparently not. Oh well: nothing can change the fact that this is a great little movie, and a fine showcase for everyone involved. Except James Cameron, obviously.

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It is the Earth Year 1977, and 20th Century Fox is preparing to release a film which will be a quantum leap forward in the evolution of the sci-fi movie. Lavishly budgeted and featuring innovative new photographic techniques, it stars a fresh young lead backed up by a distingished veteran movie star. The studio is certain they have a major hit on their hands.

But before that, they let out a rather smaller project for which they have lower expectations: George Lucas’ Star Wars, which unexpectedly goes on to make twenty times its budget on its initial release alone. Somewhat nonplussed, they make a few changes and release their cherished adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley anyway. It makes less than a fiftieth of the box office of Star Wars and vanishes into obscurity as a result.

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Deservedly so, if you ask me, as the film recently enjoyed the first terrestrial UK screening I can remember (courtesy of the ever-surprising Horror Channel) and I was finally able to watch it. I read Zelazny’s original novel twenty years or so ago and don’t recall being particularly impressed by it, but the overall impression I take away from Jack Smight’s movie is one of a startling lack of even basic film-making skills.

The movie opens with a somewhat perplexing sequence of US Air Force officers manning a missile silo in California, during which we meet a few key characters, primarily Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Denton (George Peppard). Apropos of nothing, an incoming Russian missile strike is detected and Tanner and Denton launch their own missiles in response. A Stock Footage nuclear apocalypse duly unfolds.

And the film is already pretty much dead in the water, because it has somehow managed to make the thermonuclear extinction of civilisation thoroughly boring. No emotional context is given to this, no explanation of just what has provoked the war: we don’t see panicking populations or actual cities being vaporised, we just see Peppard and Vincent looking at radar screens and stock footage of nuclear blasts. These are two characters who are still utterly one-dimensional (not that this changes later on) – Vincent is young and rebellious, Peppard is older and does things by-the-book.

One wonders why they didn’t just cut this whole sequence and just start two years after the apocalypse, because it adds nothing to the film that couldn’t have been included in the captions which explain the new status quo of the planet. I suspect it’s just there to boost the film’s running time up to a respectable 90 minutes or so.

Anyway, as the story proper gets going, America is an irradiated wasteland baking underneath fiery skies, and the men at the base are trying to keep it together. Any hope of a revival in the film’s quality is instantly shot down by a sequence in which Tanner, on a motorbike, has to run a gauntlet of nine-foot-long giant scorpions infesting the desert. First of all, nine foot long scorpions?!? (And only two years after the bomb, as well.) Is this supposed to be a serious film or a 50s creature feature? It might be a bit more forgivable if the scorpions were realised in an even halfway decent way: but apparently the scorpion props didn’t work on location and we are left with normal-sized scorpions composited into the live plates. I say ‘composited’; it looks like they just showed the original footage on TV, let the scorpions run around on the screen, and then filmed that.

Well, while the viewer is still recovering from this special-effects extravaganza, someone drops a lit cigarette on a copy of Playboy, which (naturally) causes the base to explode, killing all but four of the men living there: Vincent, Peppard, a character played by Paul Winfield, and another minor character who is clearly going to die before long. Peppard wheels out a heavily armed-and-armoured, twelve-wheeled juggernaut called the landmaster, and announced he is going somewhere. Vincent and Winfield decide to go with him.

The whole movie is basically about their journey, but it’s not until they’re actually underway that anyone bothers to explain where it is they’re going or what might be there when they arrive. It transpires they’re all off to New York, the source of the only radio signal they’ve been able to detect, following a route between the most heavily irradiated zones that Peppard has christened Damnation Alley.

What follows is a series of episodic adventures as they travel across what’s left of the country: they pick up a lounge singer (Dominique Sanda) from the ruins of Vegas, Winfield gets eaten alive by carnivorous roaches in Salt Lake City, and so on and so on. (It’s so episodic that it’s very easy to see how and why the different versions of Damnation Alley – book and film – inspired one of the most famous early Judge Dredd epics, The Cursed Earth.) In the end, and once again apropos of nothing, there is a savage storm, following which the skies and climate return to normal. The travellers find themselves only a few miles from the enclave of survivors they’ve been looking for, and receive a warm welcome.

That’s it, that’s all there is to it: there’s no rising action, no deeper plot, no sense of a climax. They just arrive and the film ends, rather abruptly. None of the characters have appreciably grown or learned anything in any way – they have just trundled through the film, displaying the one or two character traits they have been assigned with monotonous regularity. (Well, most of them: calling Sanda’s character even one-dimensional is being charitable.) The novel’s story of a bad man finding redemption through adversity, perhaps too late, is completely gone.

Just about the only aspects of the film which aren’t actively exasperating to watch are the landmasters and the photographic effects of the burning skies, and the shots of the former barrelling across the wasteland under the latter are by far the best thing it has to offer: ninety minutes of these, as a sort of experimental movie, would be a lot more interesting than what we actually got. I can only assume that Damnation Alley was the victim of studio interference on a massive scale, because this feels like a film which has had many of its vital components roughly extracted (not least the plot), and ill-conceived filler material inserted to fill the gap. Jack Smight also directed probably my favourite version of Frankenstein, so I’m reluctant to blame him, anyway (that said, he also did the film version of The Illustrated Man, which was also pretty duff).

Anyway, it’s hardly surprising that the world today is not feverishly awaiting the release of Damnation Alley: Episode 7, nor that this film is as forgotten as it is. Great SF movies say something about what it means to be a human being; even an average SF movie tells us something interesting about society and culture at the time it was made. All Damnation Alley shows us is that the people responsible for its release were simply incompetent when it came to making movies.

 

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