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Posts Tagged ‘Martine Beswick’

Didn’t post, or indeed make, anything approaching a New Year resolution this year, which may be a sign of advancing age, or advancing cynicism, or something, but anyway. Nevertheless, I had a bit of a tidy-up of the garret, did a bit of vague positive thinking, and so on. Yes, I know, deeply impressive, isn’t it?

Well, anyway, this has all put me in mind of finishing off a little project from a few years ago, namely, looking at all of the official James Bond films. My original plan was to get all of these out of the way prior to the release of Skyfall in 2012, but obviously this did not happen, and a few Connerys remain outstanding. (Unfortunately only one of the outstanding Connerys is actually outstanding.) But we may as well pick these off as they become available.

Thunderball-Poster

Terence Young’s Thunderball was released in 1965, and was the fourth Bond movie – but, in a slightly odd way, it was also the first Bond movie, inasmuch as it actually started off as a film script, rather than a novel. This, basically, led to a gravy train for many generations of lawyers, primarily between Eon, producers of the official Bond films, who were of the opinion that they had exclusive rights to all Bond-related material, and Kevin McClory, who helped write the Thunderball script, and was thus somewhat peeved when elements of it started turning up in adaptations of completely different books. (The legal shenanigans arising from this explain why Blofeld and SPECTRE weren’t referred to by name in any of the films between 1971 and 2015, and why McClory was able to remake Thunderball as a non-Eon film in 1983.)

Every version of this story (and, as you can, there have been several) follows more-or-less the same lines: the evil minds at SPECTRE, led as ever by Bond’s arch-enemy Blofeld, have cooked up their most ambitious scheme yet – planting a surgically-modified traitor inside NATO to steal two nuclear warheads, which they will then ransom back to the world’s governments for a huge fee. Unfortunately for the bad guys, the final stages of prep for their nefarious undertaking are based out of a health farm in southern England, which their most indefatiguable foe just happens to be visiting…

Well, at this point in history you can kind of see Eon realising they were potentially onto a very good thing with the Bond franchise, and you could probably argue it’s the first film in the series which is aware of its own identity as something called A James Bond Movie. It’s not quite that they’ve taken their foot off the pedal, although this movie has rather less of an edge than previous ones, nor is it that they seem to be taking particular pains not to mess with what was clearly a winning formula. It’s just that there’s a very slight whiff of perfunctoriness about proceedings, in some respects, a definite sense of the film-makers being more concerned with pure spectacle than anything else.

Of course, with its big set pieces and huge concluding battle/chase, Thunderball certainly delivers, but a lot of that spectacle takes the form of lavish underwater sequences, which are necessarily silent and just a little bit slow. (I believe this was the longest pre-Craig Bond film, probably due to all the sub-aqua stuff padding it out.) The bad guys, primarily SPECTRE bigwig Largo (Adolfo Celi) and femme fatale Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), are capable but not quite of the first rank – in fact the same can be said for most of the visiting cast. Rik van Nutter delivers the least arresting incarnation of Felix Leiter this side of Dalton’s first Bond film, and casting the rather insipid Claudine Auger as the main girl is a bad move, especially when you consider that the bodacious Martine Beswick was also hanging around the set, being criminally underused as one of Bond’s sidekicks.

So this isn’t a favourite Bond for me, and I find it a long and oddly charmless film compared to the ones on either side of it. But it is interesting inasmuch as it’s a textbook example of the classic Bond formula, not making any effort to deviate from the norms of the series.

Bond, by this point, is basically just a male wish-fulfilment figure who gets to swan around doing and getting whatever (and whoever) he wants. He still functions as a post-imperial fantasy hero on some level, but the wish-fulfilment thing is definitely where he’s coming from. And the odd thing is that this makes him a curiously unengaging and, by modern standards, actually quite unpleasant character. His arrogance has crossed the border into a very punchable smugness, and he’s just not human or vulnerable enough to be interesting. Bond’s sexual politics have always been a bit iffy, but some of the goings-on here are as nasty as anything else in the series – Molly Peters’ physio at the health spa initially wants nothing to do with him, but is basically blackmailed by Bond into being the recipient of a proper seeing-to, at which point she becomes as besotted with him as anyone else – predictably, he seems not to genuinely care for her at all.

Beyond this, Thunderball also epitomises the tendency for Bond films to look like adverts for various different things – cars, exotic locales, liquor, suits, jewellery, and so on. It’s a fantasy world of conspicuous consumption, and when the plot occasionally surfaces (as of course it must) it just means that the film looks like a commercial for things you wouldn’t want or be able to buy in the first place – people being eaten by sharks, impaled by spearguns, tortured, and so on. I suppose you could argue that this is the root of the complaint that the Bond films glamourise violence and immorality, and I suppose they have a point.

Perhaps that’s the thing about Thunderball – lacking a really sympathetic lead, and with a script that’s somewhat short of the usual jokes (there are some quite tired ones here), the dark side of Bond is perhaps closer to the surface than usual in a way that doesn’t usually happen. It’s kind of tempting to blame Kevin McClory for this, given that his involvement is the main change in behind-the-scenes personnel between this and the other Connery Bonds, but the odd thing is that Never Say Never Again, which remakes this story, does so with both grit and humour – then again, McClory was only executive producer on the 1983 film.

I suppose Thunderball isn’t really a bad film, but it’s as big a wobble as the Bond series had in the 1960s, especially when you consider the sheer overall quality of the initial run of Connery films. This isn’t quite the series resting on its laurels and going to autopilot, but it’s a near thing.

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I have felt for a long time that there is a strange and not immediately obvious connection between horror stories and comedies – that these two genres in particular share a common link. They are defined, primarily, not by a particular setting or subject matter, as with most others, but by the response they are aiming to produce in the audience. Perhaps then it isn’t so surprising that the ideas for many comedies, when written down on paper, sound shocking and not really the stuff of humour, while the premises of many horror movies seem equally laughable.

Indeed, I’ve always said that there’s nothing more horrific than a bad comedy and nothing more laughable than a bad horror film. (Perhaps this is why comedy-horror is such a difficult beast to get right.) Perhaps sailing closer to the wind in this department than most is Roy Ward Baker’s 1971 Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, which really does sound like a joke (and actually started life as one, if you believe the anecdotes about this movie’s genesis).

dr-jekyll-and-sister-hyde-martine-everett

This movie finds Hammer back in fog-bound Victorian London, albeit one which is clearly being realised on a budget stretched to breaking point. The streetwalkers are living in terror of the activities of the murderous Ripper, a crazed killer who inflicts oddly precise mutilations on his victims’ bodies. Perhaps brilliant young scientist Doctor Jekyll (Ralph Bates) can shed some light on the matter?

Obligingly, Dr Jekyll tells his strange tale through the wonders of flashback and narration. Working on the universal panacea of a comprehensive antivirus (don’t worry, this is just a McGuffin), he is dismayed to realise that life is literally too short for him to see his researches through to fruition: it will take many decades to complete the project. This is not enough to dissuade a mad scientist in a Hammer movie, of course, and he starts to investigate the possibilities of extending the human lifespan.

The mechanism he eventually settles upon involves – and I promise you, the actual film really doesn’t seem quite as ridiculous as this sounds – female hormones, apparently because women don’t go bald, or something. Procuring the necessaries from the local mortuary attendant (a droll extended cameo from Philip Madoc), he first succeeds in massively extending the life of a fly, even if the male insect does appear to start laying eggs as a side-effect. Not to be deterred, Jekyll presses on, even if a shortage down the morgue requires him to retain the dubious services of the grave-robbers Burke and Hare.

Soon enough the scene everyone’s been waiting for arrives and Jekyll swills down the potion himself. Cue a lot of staggering about and gurning from Ralph Bates and a genuinely clever shot where he appears to turn into Martine Beswick without the use of either cuts or dissolves: I suspect this was done with mirrors, but anyway. It’s Martine Beswick! Hurrah! The film has been fairly salacious so far but creeps still further in the direction of the nudge-nudge-heh-heh joke, as the very first thing sister Hyde does on arrival is cop a proper feel of herself in front of a mirror.

Hyde is initially the secondary persona, but this changes as Jekyll finds himself running short on, er, supplies again, and is forced – after some fairly brisk moral soul-searching – to procure them himself by putting on a cape and top hat and going out into Whitechapel after dark with a big knife. But as the police close in, Jekyll realises he needs a better disguise for his bloody activities, and what better disguise than the body of a woman?

But Hyde, unleashed, turns out to be very much her own woman, with her own priorities and her own desires. The two personalities rapidly become locked in a curious metaphysical battle, with various confused members of the family upstairs involved too. And all the time the police continue to hunt for the Ripper, whoever he (or she) is…

As I say, written down, the plot of this film makes it sound like a much trashier proposition than it actually is – or, perhaps, the production of the film does a good job of masking most of the trashiness. Given the tiny budget, Victorian London is convincingly evoked, and the sets and costumes are as classy as you would expect from any Hammer horror. The performances, too, are pretty good, even if some of the supporting turns are a little over-ripe. The script (from telefantasy legend Brian Clemens) does a decent job of selling a fairly outlandish idea.

That said, this film has a harder, darker edge than the horror movies from Hammer’s golden age five years previously, and there’s that lurid, salacious quality to parts of the film as well. It always feels in a hurry to get to the flesh and blood sequences, which is why it feels a little strange that the gore is relatively restrained and Martine Beswick only has two very brief nude scenes. Possibly Roy Ward Baker, a quality director, couldn’t bring himself to go all-out in this particular area. Certainly he does an impressive job, including some clever, witty juxtapositions – a sequence of Jekyll at work with his knife is intercut with close-ups of a butcher gutting a rabbit, for instance.

I suppose Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde qualifies as a very, very early example of the sort of Victoriana-mashup which has become increasingly popular in recent years: here we have Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, and Burke and Hare all lumped into the same narrative. It’s hard to shake the impression that, on some level, the whole thing is intended as a sick, black joke, and this may be why some of the plotting and characterisation hasn’t been approached as rigorously as one might have hoped for.

For instance, Jekyll does come to the conclusion that the benefits of his work morally justify him going out and carving up prostitutes very quickly, for all that he does so on sound utilitarian grounds. This compromises the character, and when the drama focuses on the conflict between Jekyll and Hyde, it’s can’t really be framed as good vs evil – both of them are murderers, after all. Both Bates and Beswick give very serious, committed performances, and it’s a shame that Beswick in particular doesn’t get quite enough to do – the whole Jekyll vs Hyde angle doesn’t appear until very late on in the film, and the director apparently later regretted not exploring the whole gender-related split-personality angle in more detail. There’s also a bit of an issue that the film feels like it’s lacking a third act: the climax feels like it comes out of nowhere in a rather arbitrary way.

So, not the most typical of Hammer films, with only Bates present from the usual rep company, and a distinctly different tone and emphasis. But it is definitely a memorable one – even if that is, perhaps, for the wrong reasons. The idea of Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde sounds like a joke, and perhaps the biggest failing of this film is that, to some extent, it treats it like one: a black, deadpan joke, but a joke nevertheless.

 

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With the UK in danger of vanishing entirely under a pile of snow, I find myself wanting to watch something light and sunny and daft. And so, to a movie which holds the distinction of being the first Hammer film I ever saw, round about the age of six.

Hammer horror movies were a staple of the schedule (admittedly the late-night schedule) in the eighties and nineties – my own adolescence might have been rather different if they hadn’t – but they’re very little seen on TV nowadays, which I think is rather a shame. However, still relatively common now, as it was in the late seventies, is the appearance of one or other of the Hammer caveman fantasies. You know, I say caveman fantasies, but if we look at the poster we can perhaps get an idea of what the film-makers’ priorities really were:

onemillionyearsbc

Yes, it’s Don Chaffey’s One Million Years B.C., and as you can see the actual cavemen are not the main feature of the publicity. Somewhat more prominent (in every sense of the word) is former weathergirl Raquel Welch, almost wearing the remains of several rabbits (actual rabbits are mysteriously missing from the film itself). If you can tear yourself away from Raquel, I would direct your attention to a couple of other features of the poster: the strapline ‘This is the way it was‘, which is a very brave assertion given the poster features a caveman being eaten by a brontosaurus, and the bit of the blurb concluding ‘…a savage world where the only law was lust!‘ – which, as we shall see, is arguably overegging the pudding.

Anyway, One Million Years B.C. is set in what scientists have come to refer to as the Dumbassic Era of history, and opens with the formation of the Earth – which strongly resembles someone letting off a catherine wheel at the other end of a very smoky shed (I may be giving away special effects secrets here). Eventually we find ourselves in a bleak, prehistoric world (for once, not the woods out the back of Hammer’s Borehamwood production base but the Canary Islands), where we meet the good folk of the Rock Tribe, who – as their name suggests – are the original rockers, with matted hair, beards, and bearskins (well, maybe not the last one). In charge of the Rock Tribe is Akhoba (Robert Brown, later to evolve into James Bond’s boss), but jockeying for preferment are his two sons Sakana (Percy Herbert, a ubiquitous if fairly anonymous film actor) and Tumak (John Richardson). Also on the scene is the luscious, slightly naughty cavewoman Nupondi, played by Martine Beswick. I know everyone goes on about Raquel Welch when they talk about this film, but if you asked me to make a choice between her and Martine, I really don’t know which way I’d jump (so to speak). Even if I plumped for Raquel, I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t be thinking of Martine.

Sorry, back to the film. John Richardson is an interesting example of that very rare stock figure, the Hammer hunk – in most of their films, the juvenile male lead ends up playing a very secondary role to character actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Richardson, however, gets to play a proper leading man role here and in She (he gets a reasonable part in Vengeance of She, too), based as much – one suspects – on his good looks as his acting ability. There is a persistent story that he was also married to Martine Beswick, too, so all-in-all his position on the All-Time Jammy Git chart is looking good.

Some things never change, and even in the Dumbassic Era a family barbeque is the cause of friction. Tumak finds himself kicked out of the Rock Tribe and banished into a vast lava desert inhabited only by carnivorous ape-creatures, and poorly-composited giant spiders and iguanas (effects maestro Ray Harryhausen apparently suggested using the blow-ups, the idea being that having seen live creatures, the audience would be more likely to think the animated dinosaurs were real. Ray’s logic is at fault here, as all one is left with are two different kinds of obvious special effect, the animation (which is great) and the blown-up real animals (which are rather embarrassing)).

On the other side of the desert is the sea, where Tumak encounters the Shell Tribe, a more culturally and technologically advanced group (they have invented spears, painting, and leg-shaving). He finds himself strangely drawn to Loana (Welch), perkiest of the Shell Tribe’s young women, although this may be because she had less rabbitskin to work with when fashioning her outfit than anyone else in the tribe. Despite saving a child from an attack by some sort of theropod carnivore (is it a juvenile tyrannosaur? is it an allosaur? does it really matter anyway?), Tumak gets himself kicked out of the Shell Tribe too, mainly because he is a selfish thicko. Loana finds herself caught in the grip of a force beyond her control (I’m talking about the requirements of the script, by the way, not love) and goes along with him.

Meanwhile Sakana has carried out a bit of a coup in the Rock Tribe, Martine – sorry, Nupondi has done some mildly provocative dancing, and Akhoba has been doing some very dodgy I-am-crippled acting. At this point the plot starts to unravel a bit, as is wont to happen when your film has virtually no actual dialogue beyond grunting and people saying ‘Akita!’ to each other. (This appears to mean ‘Please render assistance,’ though I could be wrong.) People start wandering back and forth between the two tribes almost at random (or being flown there by helpful pterosaurs), develop an almost-supernatural knowledge of events they weren’t present to see, and so on. In the end there is a volcanic eruption which switches the plot off and gets rid of various members of the supporting cast (hey, no spoilers – but suffice to say I Am Not Happy).

For a long time this was the most financially successful film Hammer ever made, although I suspect it has lost this crown to the Nu-Hammer movie The Woman in Black. There’s something mildly depressing about that, given that this is such a silly piece of disposable kitsch, but I suppose it’s also understandable given its very, very obvious charms and the fact you know exactly what you’re going to get when you sit down to watch it.

The star attractions, other than Martine and Raquel in those fur bikinis, are Harryhausen’s animated dinosaurs. There are fewer of these than you might think, and it’s quite a long time before the first proper one shows up – a decently animated archelon (surprisingly, the Shell Tribe call the archelon ‘archelon’, suggesting they have also invented Latin taxonomy). However, the actual fight between the archelon and the Shell Tribe is so dull that even some of the characters involved don’t seem that interested in it. Much better is the fight between Tumak and the tyrannosaur/allosaur/whatever – not quite up to the standard of the sequence with Gwangi and the cowboys from The Valley of Gwangi, but still top-tier Harryhausen. Equally good is an all-animated fight between a triceratops and a ceratosaurus, and there’s quite a nice fight (you may have noticed a pattern developing) between duelling pterosaurs as well.

The rest of the time we are watching actors in skins grunt at each other. To be honest, the differentiation between the surfer-dudes of the Shell Tribe and the rockers on the other side of the desert had the potential to be reasonably subtle, but the movie chooses to beat you about the head by giving all the dudes blonde hair and all the rockers brown hair. At least the script shows a rare flash of logic by making Tumak as much of an arse as everyone else from his tribe – as mentioned, he is stupid, selfish, and bad-tempered, at least for the first two-thirds of the movie, at which point he appears to lose all personality and the script starts to unravel too.

And what a script it is. Apparently it took four people to write this thing, which works out at roughly one word of dialogue each – nice work if you can get it. I wonder why they insisted on using made-up caveman language? It surely can’t be out of a desire to maintain historical accuracy, because this film doesn’t have any. I suppose not having any dialogue does mean your film will travel much better internationally (hence those healthy box office returns), but the downside to all the grunting and the ‘Ahot! Akita Tumak!’ stuff is that it not only robs your film of any subtext, it also takes away most of your text. You can’t have any characterisation that can’t be expressed through physical action, your scope for plot complication becomes severely limited, and – perhaps most crucially – it becomes very difficult to be witty or even broadly funny without resorting to slapstick. So you end up with a very simplistic, earnest film which is still palpably absurd.

Although it is still a fairly well-behaved film. All that stuff about the ‘law of lust’ on the poster is rather misleading, as the primitive passions of cavemen and cavegirls get virtually no screen time. The fur bikini stuff is all quite wholesome and not prurient at all (well, there’s a bit where Martine and Raquel have a catfight – you’d’ve thought Martine’s track record in From Russia With Love would stand her in good stead, but clearly not…), and the film isn’t really suggestive at all. This would be amended with the release of the follow-up, When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, in which Victoria Vetri’s fur bikini memorably goes a-flyin’ (although the version which shows up on TV these days has been expurgated).

In the end one is left with a collection of simple, honest, largely visual and almost wholly guilt-free pleasures – Raquel, Martine, and Harryhausen are, on the face of it, a combination unlikely to produce anything of moment, but One Million Years B.C. does seem to have lasted. It’s silly. It’s very silly, in fact. But it’s also a lot of fun.

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Having recently flown the flag for Hammer Films’ reputation as a maker of serious and thoughtful fantasy and suspense films, I suppose in the interests of balance I must now turn my attention to one of their movies which really is just a piece of kitsch exploitation cinema. Which is it to be? (Turns to DVD collection.) The Witches? No, far too serious. Vengeance of She? Too disappointing in the light of how good the original She was. The Viking Queen? Hmm, now there we have possibilities, but I think we can do worse… In 1966 Hammer enjoyed a big hit with the ‘prehistoric fantasy’ (i.e. rubber dinosaur movie) One Million Years B.C., which, with its winning combination of imported American talent (Raquel Welch), lavish location filming (the Canary Islands), and painstaking special effects (courtesy of the genius Ray Harryhausen), made them a lot of money. But not, apparently, quite enough to satisfy producer Michael Carreras, who in an attempt to make the sets and costumes pay for themselves decided to re-use them in another film, only this time without the imported American talent, lavish location filming, and painstaking special effects. The result was Prehistoric Women (1967). The opening titles play over sumptuous, stock-footage vistas of African wildlife, in a brave attempt to prevent the viewer from noticing that the rest of the film is shot on a sound-stage in Darkest Borehamwood. (This attempt fails.) Here we meet David Marchand (Michael Latimer), a slightly moody White Hunter escorting tourists on safari (the setting seems to be Edwardian, not that it matters). In pursuit of a wounded leopard, Marchand trespasses on the territory of a mysterious and hostile native tribe, who explain they’re obliged to sacrifice him to their Rhino God. (There is a bit more exposition and back-story at this point, but it’s essentially gibberish.) But as soon as Marchand touches the idol of the god (i.e., a stuffed rhinoceros that someone had to paint white) there is a flash of light and he finds himself transported into a new, prehistoric world (basically it’s the same sound-stage with the trees moved around a bit and the lighting turned up). It gets even better. In this prehistoric world, Marchand finds lots and lots of prehistoric girls (hence the title), but not so many prehistoric men. This sounds like good news for our hero, but it transpires that the prehistoric brunettes are nasty and keep the prehistoric blondes as slaves. The prehistoric men are all grizzled old coots who are kept down a hole somewhere. The evil prehistoric queen of the prehistoric brunettes (the imposing Martine Beswick) takes a bit of a shine to David Marchand, as he is neither grizzled nor an old coot, but he easily resists her rather unsubtle advances (this is probably the least plausible thing that happens in the movie, and as you can see that’s saying something) as he has fallen for one of the blondes (Edina Ronay). The queen has him flung down the hole with the old coots. But the blondes are plotting revolution, and to succeed they need someone to get close to the queen and spy on her – Marchand is the obvious candidate. Can our hero bring himself to let the queen have her evil way with him? Sometimes you just have to grin and bare it… (Sorry, I mean bear it. Or do I?) I hope I have given some impression as to the quality of this film, which emanates from some specially-dug bunker deep below the bargain basement. However, the fact that it was made in the mid-sixties means that while it’s deeply and obviously exploitative, it’s also incredibly coy and restrained (this movie has a PG rating in the UK). There are acres of straining chamois-leather and many close-ups of taut, undulating feminine midriffs, but that’s pretty much your lot. The pleasures of this film lie in other areas. Chief amongst these, I must say, is the presence of top-billed Martine Beswick, who had a pretty good thing going in the sixties, dancing in the credits of Dr No and acting in two other Bond movies, as well appearing in the aforementioned One Million Years B.C.. Later, of course, she went on to possibly her finest moment, playing one of the title roles in Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (I will leave you to guess which), one of the best late-period Hammer horrors. Here, to be honest, Martine’s performance is a bit rubbish, with lots of shouting and unconvincing evil laughter.

Surprising new evidence that the bubble-bath was in fact invented before the wheel.

I blame the director, who is Carreras himself. All the performances in this movie are rubbish, from Martine at the top of the cast list to Steven Berkoff at the bottom (yes, the celebrated actor, director, and playwright shows up for a couple of lines at the end – he was young, he needed the money). But then blame must also go to the scriptwriter, who is… oh, hang on, that’s Carreras too, operating under the in-jokey (trust me, you don’t want to know) pseudonym Henry Younger. All the African tribesmen and prehistoric folk of this film speak with astonishing articulacy, even when they’re filling in the ludicrous backstory or floridly bemoaning their miserable lot. And there are no jokes in it. Everything is very earnest and serious – actually, for the cast to keep a straight face throughout is a significant achievement, given the number of sequences involving the stuffed rhino (which is put on a trolley and wheeled across the soundstage during the climax, when it doubles up as a real rhino). I suppose that Prehistoric Women is at least noteworthy for inspiring a spoof version that’s actually much better known (and much better) – I refer, of course, to Carry On Up The Jungle, which replicates both its look and (in some respects) plot, with almost forensic attention to detail. That one has jokes in it, of course, and the acting is rather more accomplished. Given the choice between watching a good Carry On and a good Hammer, I would usually have to flip a coin – but Prehistoric Women is not a good Hammer by any stretch of the imagination, and thankfully by no means representative of the studio’s output even at its most cash-strapped.

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